In Conversation with Jamilah Sabur by Taylor Renee Aldridge

A portrait of Sabur atop a still video image featured in the performance My Queen before you go tell my horse, Maggie Knox, June 25, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

A portrait of Sabur atop a still video image featured in the performance My Queen before you go tell my horse, Maggie Knox, June 25, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Jamilah Sabur is a Miami based artist working intimately in performance, multimedia and installation. By using history as a medium itself, she introduces and reacquaints her audiences with notable events of the past that have perpetuated colonialist structures. Sabur’s works make us question the politics of language, barriers to access, and the dystopian effects of capitalism. Similarly to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, an effort that aims to uncover forgotten epochs in time, Sabur demystifies human affairs of the past by reenacting the role of significant politicians, activists and poets through her work. She breathes life into these controversial figures and narratives by, often times, placing them in intimate settings that have (or would have) transpired out of the public eye. Outside of the white cube, Sabur is one of the most kind, sincere, and extremely thoughtful beings I have encountered. These innate qualities are the very elements that contribute to the multidimensionality and detail in her work.

Here, I talk with Sabur about her previous performances, Voleur, thief (2015), Zinnia and the whitefly (2012), and My Queen before you go tell my horse (2016) (the latter two are a part of an ongoing series), and what is to come.

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Taylor Renee Aldridge: An overarching ritual in many of your works is incorporating socio-political events and figures of the past. These works, often carried out through multi-media, installation and performance can be seen as interventions, sometimes as tributes, or homages. Can you talk a little bit about this and your intention to center a socio-political context in your work?     

Jamilah Sabur: Last year I wanted to pay tribute to the Haitian author, playwright, and poet Marie Vieux-Chauvet and her trilogy Love, Anger, Madness in the performance Voleur, thief performed with Andy Robert presented at Dimensions Variable in Miami. The performance focused on Madness, a more surreal account of the brutality under the “Papa Doc” Duvalier dictatorship and the psychology of the oppressed. I had discovered Vieux-Chauvet the year prior while reading a book by Myriam Chancy called Framing the Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women and felt sickened that I was not exposed to many of the authors including Vieux-Chauvet before, especially coming from Miami; many do not know her. So, part of the thinking was to share her name through this performance. I do touch upon socio-political themes in some of my works. Certainly, part of the thinking is “Jamilah you have an audience, be sure to tell them something.”

TRA: Yes, I find it interesting that you are providing a form of pedagogical insight for your audiences, specifically into the history of corrupt systems perpetuated by colonialist structures.

JS: With My Queen, I wanted to highlight that of the 54 years of independence in Jamaica, 40 of those years has been under austerity, spending twice as much on debt repayments as it does on education and health combined. Clearly, servicing debt is a business, but paying back the colonizer after they’ve raped your land, your resources, and your people is the sadistic punishment for every colonized developing nation. [According to recent studies,] in the year 2023, Kingston, the capital of Jamaica will hit climate departure, which means that the average temperature of its coolest year from then on is projected to be warmer than the average temperature of its hottest year between 1860 and 2005.

TRA: I’m happy you brought up My Queen before you go tell my horse, your most recent performance which took place at Maggie Knox in June. In it, you act as an Obeah woman summoning the late Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, who is called to a divine space of refuge. Whereby he is able to tap into a spiritual revival. The space reflects an ethos of ephemeral and spiritual likeness. Can you talk more about this work?

JS: I was reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse which was the catalyst that birthed this piece. Tell My Horse (in Creole “Parlay Cheval Ou”) is an account of Hurston’s anthropological fieldwork in Jamaica and Haiti of Obeah and Voodoo practices in 1936-1937. There's a part in the book where she describes visiting a balm yard in Jamaica, which is a temple, and today it is also known as a revival yard, which serves as a sacred communal space. This secret space was a refuge where the living met with and cultivated with ancestral ontologies providing the nourishment to sustain one’s being and agency while being possessed through enslavement and colonial subjection. Growing up, obeah and balm yards had very negative associations, although one of our national heroes is an obeah woman. Queen Nanny, known as Nanny of the Maroons, an escaped slave and military leader, organized the guerilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to keep away the British troops who penetrated the mountains of the Maroons in the 18th century. Historical documents refer to her as the "rebels obeah woman." Initially, I envisioned Manley visiting the balm yard that Hurston describes. I performed as an obeah woman who summoned Manley. In Tell My Horse, Hurston writes of an account in Haiti:

Portrait of Sabur captured after the performance My Queen before you go tell my horse, Maggie Knox, June 25, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Monica Uszerowicz

Portrait of Sabur captured after the performance My Queen before you go tell my horse, Maggie Knox, June 25, 2016.
Photo: Courtesy of Monica Uszerowicz

Guedé is a powerful loa. He has charge of everyone within the regions of the dead, and he presides over all that is done there. He is a grave-digger and opens the tombs and when he wishes to do so he takes out the souls and uses them in his service. Guedé is never visible. He manifests himself by “mounting” a subject as a rider mounts a horse, then he speaks and acts through his mount. The person mounted does nothing of his own accord. He is the horse of the loa until the spirit departs. Under the whip and guidance of the spirit-rider, the “horse” does and says many things that he or she would never have uttered un-ridden.

In My Queen,  the text I prepared and recited was directed at the (International Monetary Fund) IMF, World Bank, and Queen Elizabeth II who is still Jamaica’s official head of state, and called for Jamaica's debt to be written off so the island can prepare for climate departure in 7 years and the changing ecosystem that will materialize. I chose to engage Michael Manley (affectionately called Joshua) because he is a legend in Jamaica. Growing up hearing my parents talk about him, he became a superhero in my eyes as a child. He was the most exceptional political figure in the post-colonial history of Jamaica. His political activism was not only contained to Jamaica but his global presence was really influential. Manley was the most prominent anti-apartheid voice outside South Africa, he was a principal strategist in the isolation of apartheid South Africa, giving major United Nations speeches in Maputo, Mozambique; Kingston, Jamaica; and UN headquarters.

TRA: In My Queen you grapple with a series of issues, residue if you will, that is a product of colonialism in Jamaica. Such as debt, climate control, inequality, violence and neo-colonialism. These issues are all so relevant but also very vast and complex. How do engage and focus on all of these elements while performing small scale intimate gestures?

JS: The gesture is coming from a place of sorrow, an act of mourning and wanting to channel this feeling that there is no way out of this cycle of fuckery we’re still in today. I do have an everything but the kitchen sink approach to my work, just put every damn thing in there like a mind map, and the patterns will begin to appear. Definitely a sort of assemblage thinking. Honestly, it is a bit sensory overload but it really is about creating a space to think and process and mourn. The opening lines of the text I prepared reads “Ladies and gentlemen let me tell you what episode we’re in. I speak to you from the corridors of the universe. I invite you here as a witness.” I have been thinking a lot about what it is to witness. The space of conversation and the act of conversion while transferring a thought. For this performance, I really took the baton from one of my favorite rappers Boosie Badazz (formerly Lil Boosie). I was thinking a lot about Boosie’s approach in combining a myriad of complex issues in a single work—WW6 is a masterpiece. He talks about the interconnectedness of everything from ISIS to climate change, for me he does it in a Kafkaesque manner, where it’s a surreal, nightmarish milieu yet, I think about what he is trying to have us experience and not just interpret. Boosie is preparing us for battle, activating our resistance urge. This is what I want to play with in My Queen.

TRA: I would’ve have never thought that I’d be having a conversation with an artist who identifies the similarities between Boosie Badazz and Franz Kafka [laughs]. I think this very unexpected interconnectedness is at the root of your work. This notion of assemblage and mind mapping you create ephemerally can be seen as loaded, but it’s executed quite organically, and in a way that is very much digestible for your audiences.

JS: The element that I really focused on in terms of an engagement strategy was the use of my voice. I manipulated my voice as I spoke live to give an effect of an echoing roving voice speaking through a megaphone. Often times in massive protest gatherings, the figure at the megaphone may not be discernible from a distance but you can feel the utterances of their voice dispersed throughout the environment.

TRA: My Queen is a part of an ongoing performance series of gestures. In 2012, you performed Zinnia and the whitefly at the San Diego Museum of Art. Where you explored a CIA report documenting the United States involvement in the 1980 Jamaican election. Can you talk more about this work and its role in the series? What future projects/gestures will be included in the ongoing series?

JS: Zinnia was a 3-hour performance, where I performed as an expressionist looking jockey. The jockey is on an old bed rearranging zinnia flowers. Across from the bed, I placed a projection of whiteflies situated near a Juan Sánchez Cotán painting, “Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” (1602), a TV playing an interview (from 1982) of a former CIA agent, and a journalist recalling an account of The Eventide Home -- originally built in 1870 to house elderly women, but expanded to accommodate destitute, crippled, and the disabled -- being burned down by a Jamaican gang with ties to the CIA. 153 elderly women were killed in the fire.

Situating the performance around the bed came from two prominent memories my mother shared with me of that time of extreme violence. The first memory was during the campaigning of the 1980 election, where shootings would take place very often, the sound of the helicopter would trigger my oldest brother, who was 3 years old at the time to call out “mommy mommy lets go hide” and he would run under the bed. The second account from my mother was after the election a group of the winning Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) party supporters celebrated by targeting community supporters of the opposing People’s National Party (of Michael Manley). One of these supporters was a relative of my mother.

The relative and her daughter climbed a fence to go over to the neighbor's house to hide under a bed pretending to be dead, luckily escaping the rampage of one of the killing sweeps throughout the city that year. These types of attacks were apart of a strategy to destabilize the Manley government.

In Reflections on Working for Nelson Mandela, David Fenton wrote: “Michael Manley was literally overthrown as Prime Minister in 1979 by the CIA as revenge by Henry Kissinger for Jamaica refusing to condemn the Cuban intervention to keep Angola’s oil fields out of apartheid’s hands (Jamaica held a seat on the UN Security Council at the time).”   

The zinnia flower, found in Jamaica, is a symbol of endurance, since they are one of the longest blooming flowers. The flower is often planted in gardens to attract predators that consume whiteflies. I see the zinnia flower as a martyr for the other species of plants in a garden. It deters the predatory whitefly from eating the other plants, the staple food crops one would eat to survive. The performance was a reimagining of the jockey taking zinnia flowers to this burned down nursing home, as a sort of symbolic gesture in an act of mourning, a desire to revive the dead spirits.

The next project I’m working on is actually a video piece called the “Black Cat on the Wall” which is about a memory of my grandfather who worked at the Kingston abattoir, which was next to a morgue. This video is the third video work directly referencing an aspect of Jamaica from the reassembling of memories from my mother (other works include, Big Camera, 2012; Medical gaze, 2013).

Medical gaze, single-channel video still, duration 13:43; 2013 Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Medical gaze, single-channel video still, duration 13:43; 2013 Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

TRA: You were born in Jamaica, but grew up in Miami, where you live now. The city is a bit of an anomaly; having the highest immigrant population in the country. Yet, I think there is a divisiveness between the various groups that inhabit the city. Can you talk a little bit this cultural tension in Miami and how it informs your work?

JS: I was born in Saint Andrew, Jamaica and we moved to Miami when I was 4 years old.  For me Miami, is really a place of dissonance that has certainly shaped my aesthetic. There’s a certain allowance this place offers where one can dispense with the formalities and really create a disparate sensibility making new worlds. There really isn’t a sense of a real rooted cultural history to this place like other cities where I’ve lived, Baltimore and NYC for example. So much of the shared cultural heritage of Miami, in my opinion, is one of distance and displacement. This feeling of constantly being on the outside. There’s a lack of solidarity here among the sea of immigrants.  So many have a “back home” a psychological and physical home that is not here which definitely creates a lack of shared rooted identity in one place. And when so many people lack that impulse to be where they are, I think that this lack of personal presence, this vacancy, ultimately is contagious, creating a shared sense of divided self.

Just how we end up imitating each other is sort of mysterious, but it’s a macro-pattern among all humans. This is one outstanding aspect of America as a whole. This is a place full of peoples who were forcibly displaced from their homes, or chose displacement, for one reason or another. When people see signs that their neighbors are not "here" they are drawn to exist in likewise fashion. We have a place full of people who have a lot of reasons not to be "here" and see that what other people are doing is not being here. I feel the need to explore possibilities for embodied understanding of this dynamic in my work. In some parts of the country a new culture has started to form, but Miami is a place where this story is really palpable.

According to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), undocumented black immigrants are detained and deported at five times the rate of other undocumented communities. There's a fantasy perception that immigrant solidarity is strong here. The lack of solidarity is a result of many things but intensified by the racial hierarchy that's dominant in the Caribbean and Latin America which has not been challenged in the same way as the Civil Rights Movement in the states has challenged racial hierarchies. That is another factor which has lead to a lack of community among immigrants in Miami.

Zinnia and the whitefly, performance, San Diego Museum of Art, August 17, 2012 Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Zinnia and the whitefly, performance, San Diego Museum of Art, August 17, 2012 Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

TRA: I visited Miami a short while ago, and I definitely felt this dissonance that you speak of among communities of color, specifically the Caribbean and latin communities. Most recently, part of the historic Lemon City, where you grew up, officially became designated as Little Haiti, now an official neighborhood in Miami City. This designation was no small feat and is a huge achievement for Haitian Miamians who contribute greatly to the cities culture but who have been discriminated against largely by other immigrants in Miami. Can you talk more about this tension and your upbringing in the Haitian community?

JS: I was most influenced by the Haitian community growing up. I feel like no one can match that Haitian pride. We lived in North Miami at the time, which had an immense Haitian presence. We know of many stories of some of our Haitian brothers and sisters trying to make the 720 mile journey from Haiti by boat to the shores of South Florida, only to be locked up at Krome detention center and deported right back. Too many memories of news stories about Haitian bodies washing ashore and feelings of anger about the Cubans being allowed to stay, while Haitians were sent back. The unfairness of the wet foot dry foot policy definitely created animosity.

TRA: Are these your feelings or feelings of others that have been shared with you?

JS: No, this was a pretty common sentiment among many, it was also locally referred to as the "black foot, white foot policy." A Cuban and Haitian can literally travel the gruesome and dangerous journey together on the same vessel at sea, the U.S coast guard make it extremely difficult to even make it to the shores, they've employed many tactics including water cannons, but if they get on shore Cuban migrants qualify for political asylum, while the Haitians are generally in the economic refugee category. This is despite the fact that Haitians also lived under decades of brutal oppressive dictatorships, the difference was that besides being generally darker, Haitians are fleeing dictatorships that were backed by the US.

This lands Haitians in what Frantz Fanon's called the "zone of non-being", while Cubans especially white ones are allowed into the "zone of being" where they get to be recognized as feeling, thinking humans. It is important to recognize degrees of racial privilege even among oppressed groups, and call attention to the rights that are lost by those shoved deeper into the zone of non-being. I'm thrilled to see Black Lives Matter widen the fight to include the deportation industrial complex.

And there isn’t just cultural tension that exists among Miami immigrants, but there are also dystopian projects of Miami’s future that will result from climate change. Some of your work is informed by these projections.

The conversation around climate change is very important. Florida‘s Biscayne Aquifer, the principal water supply, in this area is already experiencing some saltwater intrusion. Saltwater intrusion of this aquifer began when the Everglades were drained to provide dry land for development. I don’t remember the street where my family lives flooding like it does today. Miami Beach is one of the lowest lying municipalities in the country and during the full-moon high tides, the moon is pulling the rising salt water into storm-drain outlets and the porous limestone that provides the island’s foundation, forcing water up and out into the streets and sidewalks.

The city has been employing pumps to get the water out but that is a temporary solution. I really feel that there is a sense that the government will bailout the banks and developers again, when the floods become unpumpable. The type of development I’m seeing here feels dystopic and absurd and is not translating into sustainable wages for the majority living in this city who is supposed to be benefiting from this development boom. About 60 percent of Miami-Dade county is less than six feet above sea level- even before swelling of the seas is factored in. Miami has the greatest total value of assets exposed to flooding of any city in the world already pumping salt water from the streets every time it rains. A big concern I have now is that these developers are moving further west. Liberty City is one of the oldest and the largest black community in the city, also one of the poorest, but it has some of the highest elevation, which makes it prime real estate.

Boca Raton Museum of Art is currently exhibiting Sabur’s work, Jackrabbit Cellar (2011), on view until September 25, 2016.