Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Formidable Christiane D. Leach

It's "Ya'll Should Know About This Person Sunday" during the 32 Days Of Black History. I chose to feature Christiane D. Leach. I've always thought she ought to be a super star. I spend a lot of time agonizing over the fact that she isn't a household name.

But, that's what special about her. She's an artist. She makes art. People respond to it. People are moved by it. It always provokes strangely strong reactions. And regardless of audience or lack thereof, she always gets on the stage and does her thing.

I'm proud to count her among my friends. So - I hit her up with a few question
s. Here they are.

CS - Along the way - what female artists of colour shaped your voice?

CDL - Growing up in the 70' & 80's, there wasn't a representation of female artists of color in the art institutions. Even in Art School, the history books presented two very small chapters on African and Egyptian art, while the bulk of the book focused on European art, art created by white men.

CS - Don't you know it! I guess, here is where our experiences diverge. Like you, growing up, we always had varous and sundry artists traipsing through our house.

I remember one in particular, becuase she was a sweet, kind, old lady who lavished lots of attention on me. She was also quite a character. Aunt Selma drove a whopping big Cadallac, wore industrial thick telescope lens- glasses and always scrapped her car on the side of our house coming up and going down the driveway.

Folks seemed to think she was real important. They were always pointing out that she was the artist who sculpted the picture of Roosevelt on the dime. Dime wasn’t worth a nickel to me- I was more impressed that they named a whole buidling after her and that it was a fun place to take art classes. So, I would have thought there might have been some female visual artists closer to home for you.

CDL - The majority of artists that were traipsing (I like that word) through the house were my father's peers, African American male artists. I imagine if my mother had grown up in America, there would have had been more women artists, African American women artists in our house, perhaps even if we had stayed in Paris, the aborted plan, there would have been more of a presence, but alas that did not happen.

In the black community, visual art didn't play a great role, despite the fact that my father and most of his friends were all visual artists, it
didn't garner the same importance or attention that performing did.
CS - Hmmm, do you think this has anything to do with the idea that performers can (potentially) make a living off of performing, whereas, it is less easy to do so as a visual artist unless you are inside of the Academy?
CDL - Yes, it totally does. When it comes to visual art, people want it for free, but will see no problem spending $ 60 or more for a ticket to see Aretha Franklin. America is a country that values the transformative power of the arts, but doesn't think those same artists should be paid. You should read this.
CS - So, your “voice” was shaped mostly by performers.

CDL - As a child, many of the women who shaped my voice were actresses and singers, such as Cicely Tyson, Chaka Khan, Josephine Baker, Tina Turner, Louise Sorel (Kristy Love), Oum Kalthoum, Flora Purim, Iman, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Giovanni and Sarah Vaughan.
CS - The usual list available to young women. Perhaps not Josephine Baker - at least not in my household!

CDL - Then, there was Grace Jones, who I watched on German television crawling half naked across the stage like a beautiful panther. I was twelve. I knew I would never see anything like that on American television. And various Kung Fu movies.
CS - Like Tamara Dobsen as Cleopatra Jones?

CDL - No, actually the Chinese actresses of that time, especially the one who made Jackie Chan’s character swallow a hot coal after she had beaten his ass.

I think this is why music is so integral to my creative process as a "vocalist" and a visual artist. I had to pull my influences from the words and sounds that swirled in our home (Coltrane and Celia Cruz) and emanated from the street.

As I grew older there are several things that helped expand my world. That would be the library, my travels to Europe, Interview magazine, CMU Saturday art classes, college, my friendships with African-American male artists, but most importantly, my membership with 'Women of Vision'. In other words, I had to first seek it out first, to find and know that there were other woman of color who were visual artists, and writers; multi-disciplinary, such as myself.

Still the resources were limited and the documentation atrociously and practically non-existent, until the multi-cultural movement. Since then, I've become excited by artists, such as: Allison and Lezlie Saar, Zora Neale Thurston, Kara Walker, Cibo Matta, Bell Hooks, Dr. Maya Angelou, Honey in the Rock, Faith Ringold, Kali, Dr. Velina Hasu Houston, Sonia Sanchez, Frida Kahlo, Laura Esquivel, Joi (the poet & the singer), Cassandra Wilson, Queen Latifah, Sade, Julie Dash, Christina Hoyos, Zap Mamma, Yoko Ono, Nina Simone.
CS - Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is a conversation with our readers or our viewers or our listeners.
CDL - Yes, more local influences in Mary Martin, Carolina Loyola Garcia, Pamela Jennings, Vema, The Lioness, Nami Ogawa, Maritza Mosquera, Vanessa German, Tina Brewer, you.
CS - Thanks. So you are one of the most creative, brilliant women I know.
You refuse to be "boxed up" as an artist or human being. You do the
work that the muse demands regardless of the market's demands. Can
you share some insight about this? And even more specifically - where
did you learn to boldly spit in the face of those tidy classifications and
constricting specializations that our society often demands of people?

CDL - First, thank you for saying that I am brilliant, which I appreciate since so many responses to my work is based on the observer's own fear. When I look in the mirror I don't see a scary, intimidating, angry, voodoo person/artist; I see intensity, passion, power. So, thank you, for a different observation.

CS - It just always surprises me that this is the reaction so many people have to your work. I’m always inspired and uplifted, but, I notice other folks often feel threatened. Maybe it’s the way you don’t apologize for ripping boxes apart even though you know full well that the present inside isn’t as pretty as they’d hoped. And you never seem ready to jump inside a box.
CDL - I don't know what makes me not accept being "boxed up", maybe it's because I'm a triple Aries, or that I grew up in the 70's, but it's is more likely my childhood shaped by my parents.

Being the off spring of an inter-racial love affair, being the child of a German 'immigrant', difficult things, especially for that time. Some of my first important decisions involved identity and choices and when my parents both said "I had the best of both worlds", I believed them and decided, unlike many of my bi-racial friends, not to choose sides. It empowered me with a "You can't tell me who I am, I know who I am, why don't you figure out who the fuck you are and leave me at peace" attitude. It was an equal opportunity attitude, meaning it wasn't just expressed to the usual oppressor (white people), but expressed to anyone who tried to oppress me with their ignorance and fear.

I worked hard on myself, I countered my own ignorance with knowledge and fear with tests, like laying on train tracks and calmly getting up when the train arrived.
CS - Do you think we ought to insert a disclaimer here?
CDL - (WARNING: Don't try to do this, it was my test, come up with your own.)
CS - Good enough.
CDL - My father prepared me for battle. For example, I learned early on that I would be called a 'nigger' and that the meaning did not apply to me, but was example of the perpetrators own ignorance.
But my mother is the one who gave me the freedom she never had, to express myself, to do what I needed to do, to come to peace of mind. I just remembered the other day, how I would take long walks, starting at 10 am and ending at midnight, mind you, on school nights in high school. She never once gave me any stress about it. She'd like for me to come home earlier, but it's what I needed to do, otherwise, I was going to implode/explode with anger.
For her, taking walks to clear one's mind, was a very European thing to do. I think she also knew I could avoid trouble, but, if push came to shove, I could defend myself. I fought a lot during my childhood and most of the fights involved identity and race. I may have been a child, but I was a tough child, I had the tools and wasn't held back or afraid to use them.

The other thing that was truly valued was 'truth', and it took precedent over authority and position. You didn't just get respect, you had to earn it and prove it. We're all "ashes to ashes" in the end, which leads to the other great influencer. Death. Once you work through all the other fears, the last great one that is left, is to cease to exist. It's liberating to make an understanding or peace with; it's truly the only thing you have to lose...take my car, my job, respect, my man, whatever, long as I am still alive I will rise.
CS - Here we are at that deep place. But, I want to get to your creative work. For a long time, I've felt Pittsburgh has a "sound." In the same way Seattle in the 90's had a "sound." I've always named Pittsburgh's sound as "twisty-ethno-classi-funk-a-pop." Bands such as Squonk Opera and Rusted Root have been focused on exporting their brand of "twisty-ethno-classi-funk-a-pop." Soma Mestizo has also, can you speak to the quiet and innovative ways you've been exporting this sound?

CDL - Too many times, it is assumed that because you are still locally based that you haven't done anything, which I think is a gross mistake to make of any Pittsburgh band. With technology, one can connect with anyone and create and send tracks via the web. So, we quietly do these projects, many times for free, to connect with our people outside of Pittsburgh, across the world.

Our first 'exportation' per say, began with a musical partnership that Herman (Soy Sos) and I had with DJ MKL of 3 Generations Walking. It was a way to connect the two projects and build promotion for both projects. It involved remixes of Silversuit and Sunshine, which were then exported to the dance scenes in London, Italy, & Japan (got the royalty check to prove it, hell yeah). This opened up opportunities for festival invites, which unfortunately fell through due to lack of funding.
Our next projects began with a midnight call from Kakonda Dub from Indigenous Records. Through Element Five(Ashwin Tumne, WYEP radio DJ for the Afterhours show) and LAL(great band out of Toronto) we had a mutual friend, Prasad Bidaye who had turned Kakonda onto our website, our sound.

Kakonda explained the righteous path of his record label, Indigenous Resistance Record, wherein they create music about Indigenous reality and rights and freely distribute to the world. We like righteous. He said he had a song written by himself and Greenlandic theatre performer and poet Jessie Kleeman (okay, so right about now, I'm in heaven) a song which is "Lyrically a meeting of indigenous mythology and radical street politics." This song, Eagle Screaming: Red Sky Alight, featured Chuck D, Adrian Sherwood and Asian Dub Foundation. Listen here. He said that it was agreed by the group, that my voice fit the words and would I be willing to do this project. Tying all things together as I do, I said yes, as long as I can record with my musical partner and have him rock out the dub on the vocals. Consequently, Kakonda loved what Soy Sos had done, that he asked him to rock his own remix of the song, which is featured on our INTERIM II record. (Please vote with your dollars here - Interim II and/or
Indigenous Resistance.)

The next project Kakonda brought us hailed from Oceania and involved traditional lyrics and sounds of tattooing, which Soy Sos turned into a dub masterpiece. This time the elders of Oceania, decided that my vocals fit the track and Kakonda sent me the words, which I reshaped into a song. "Enter into the sacred world of sosolakam. Soy Sos used the traditonal instruments of solomon islands played by saevo and tohununo to create an atmospheric dub track."

Each of these projects have given us a sense of who are fans are and many times, they aren't American. What we are doing musically, expands beyond the usual American musical palate, which seems consumed with infinite love + broken hearted songs, oversexed, video honies, money and thuggery-in other words, they don't quite get it. Doesn't seem to be much awareness of the rest of the world. Based on the songs that get radio play, you'd never know we were in a fucked up WAR; we are just partying the world away.

See, here, in the US of A, the opportunities for people of color to make music that isn't R & B, hip hop and rap and so called, "make it" are non-existent. We are making rock music, punk rock music, industrial music, etc...but you'd never know it to feel it. Of course, this is where sites such as Myspace for example, open up the world of music; free us from the mundane.

I can't even tell you how many times people ask me, before I step on stage if I sound like Beyonce or insert pop icon of color. I'm like, "Oh, no, honey, I don't live in boxes and I'm pretty sure you aren't going to like what I'm doing. You need to be brave to catch what the fuck I'm doing." They usually stay, because no one wants to think of themselves as narrow minded (apologies for the manipulation, LOL) and they end up liking what we do, but not knowing why. My nickname, in these cases is OTC (Off The Chain).
See, if you step outside of those carefully constructed categories that the industry perpetuates, which tends to be my habit, you have to be prepared to fight the boxing in and the marginalization. Once again, fighting for the right to an identity that is created, not shoved down one's throat.
CS - I’m on that page. I admire the way you’ve been true to your vision and voice. It’s easy to get sucked into what you perceive the market wants. Ultimately, we all want to eat.
CDL - To be honest, I did get sucked in at some point, especially when it came to performance poetry. I found my voice twisting into angry rants about the black and white community, about being bi-racial, etc…”identity art”. Which a lot of people responded to, but grew to sour on the taste of that. I mean, when I performed for a black audience you had to prove you were down, a real ghetto trooper; prove your blackness. When I performed for a white audience, I felt like a god damn ghetto newscaster, for an audience who only wanted to hear about the black community through poetry. When I started to move towards solutions oriented work, more surreal, the appeal of my poetry, voice, fell on deaf ears. Which is why I don’t do much performance poetry today. Besides, something had to go. LOL
But - I get the feeling you ask yourself, how much do I need and how often do I need it? Given that, what do you consider to be your most meaningful projects?

CDL - I have to say Sun Crumbs, our short lived trans-cultural, multi disciplinary arts non-profit that offered such programs as the Busta-Myth series (The Real McCoy, No dogs, no Blacks, no Irish; Miscegenasian) and the various exhibitions I curated (Womb Journeys, Does Art make people Kill, Beauty of the Male nude). I think we really had a way of pulling in a diverse audience to discuss issues that tend to remain hidden.

CS - Five years and over 50 programs a year isn’t that short. We did more in five years than some organizations get around to in 15. And on less than a dime! Not only did it take both of us away from our own individual artwork, it didn’t put any food on the table either. You’ve been pretty prolific since then.

CDL - My one woman show, Rodeo Ego, which exhibited a decades worth of my surrealist paintings. I couldn't wait for someone to ask, so I just did it myself, because at the time, people only thought of me as an arts administrator.

My long running musical project, Soma Mestizo and our various releases, especially those recordings with Indigenous Resistance records. This has to be the one project where I feel the most free and supported. Soy Sos is my true musical muse. He’s just as risk taking and weird as I am.

Despite the hell it wrought, the production of my play, Saffronia; the miniM music festivals, The POWER exhibit, which I curated with women artists in Pittsburgh and last, but not least and the most recent, my installation at the Mattress Factory.
CS - You almost got away with glossing over your current piece at The Mattress Factory in the exhibition “Gestures: Illustrations of Catastrophe and Remote Times. ” According to the curator, Heather Pesanti, you and seventeen other artists are responding to “a page from a larger collaborative essay, ‘The Domain of the Great Bear,’ written by the artists Robert Smithson and (Pittsburgh-native) Mel Bochner in 1966, describing an apocalyptic landscape in poetic and dramatic prose.’”

Your piece “Executives of Distinction, ASAVAVS reigns here,” has an ambitious statement... which it lives up to. The catalog says the installation is “conceptually based on the notion of an executive boardroom, Leach’s multi-media sculptural installation is aptly sited in the building’s cavernous, unfinished basement. Through its use of organic materials, symbolic Native American and animal forms, and ambient music, the work comments on the toxic effects of unchecked progress on the environment and embodies a poetic interpretation of, in the artist’s words, how we humans are “draining the world dry with our desires.” It’s running until May 11th. So after now what are you working on now?
CDL - I have a few things marinating in my mind, loose ends to tie. But the two most pressing would be the release of the Soma Mestizo single on Strobotic Recording label and the release of my songs on the Lion1 label.

There are a few plays running around in my mind and some canvases that need painting, and a duo exhibit with my co-worker, Ryan Freytag called "codex", but no real 'productions' on the horizon.

My focus presently, will be on more solitary endeavors, with the exception of Soma Mestizo, than collaborative/group productions. While I enjoy the art of producing, I am more interested in making work, where I can have more control on the presentation and outcome.
CS - Can't wait to see.

1 comment:

Ferocious Kitty said...

I *heart* Chrissy! Thank you so much for presenting her in this forum.

Now, I will go and link to this!