In performance, as in history, there’s a lot that gets lost: layers of meaning and nuance too complex to carry in a single story. Investigating Simone Leigh’s and Xenobia Bailey’s projects for funkgodjazz&medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn, produced by Creative Time and the Weeksville Heritage Center, I was struck by this loss as an informative process: one that seeks to track erased histories and values so that we can do better for ourselves in the future. This is work that exists in the daily process of living, encompassing social practice both through the process of creating the items on view and even more so through the unfolding of space over time. There is something very female in highlighting labor, that which goes unnoticed. In their pieces, Bailey and Leigh do so through a focus on interiors — house (Bailey) and body (Leigh) — and what it takes to make a stable home in either.
Simone Leigh’s project, The Free People’s Medical Clinic, produced at the Stuyvesant Mansion in partnership with Ancient Song Doula Services and a number of independent holistic health practitioners, works in opposition to the nameless black female caregiver. Caretaking has been an economic cornerstone of African-American communities for years — an irony when these same communities often suffer from a lack of necessary social services, particularly those related to health. A sculptor by practice and training, Leigh has turned the entire first floor of Stuyvesant Mansion into a choreographed series of objects — stunning flower arrangements, glass cowrie shell sculptures, a careful reappropriation of the building’s old, dark wooden furniture — and costumed female greeters, all of which serve as a calming entry point to a variety of available free services: yoga, African dance, acupuncture, women’s wellness visits, HIV screenings, and more.
The Free People’s Medicine Clinic hearkens back to the need for marginalized communities to create their own independent systems of care when the general system either cannot provide or provides something so morally and ethically questionable that to call it care sounds like a sick joke. Waiting Room Magazine, a publication that Leigh released alongside the project, features an essay by Alondra Nelson about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (the most famous symbol for racial inequity in the American health care system — and all in the name of science!) and the Black Panther Party’s provision of free health clinics in the 1960s and ’70s. Buying into a system of non-care is not — and should not be offered as — a valid medical option. While Leigh’s environment, objects, and costumes seem dated (entering Stuyvesant Mansion is like stepping back in time to the early 20th century, not least because of the striking black-and-white, billowy nursing uniforms that the greeters wear), the issues that she points to are surely not. Even with the advent of the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicare, the questions stand: Are we paying for a system that can truly hold us in health? In what ways are communities, and their futures, shaped by (in)adequate access to wellness care?
Xenobia Bailey turns the question of shaping the future to the internal state of the home. Domesticity is her practice; her project, Century 21: Bed-Stuy Rhapsody in Design: An Urban Remix in the Aesthetic of Funk, evidences very clearly how maker-oriented and home-based she is. Rather than exploding the world outward into a sense of possibility, Bailey embraces idealism from within, giving the students of Boys & Girls High School the tools to explore their own world and maintain agency through the control of design. Students worked with Bailey to make furniture and decorations using repurposed materials — supermarket serials, old product boxes, newspapers, and other daily detritus— which then illustrate the fictional story of a contemporary young couple moving into their Weeksville home. The results are brightly colored and intricately woven, although the furniture is flimsy at best: more of a nod towards reality than usable objects. Curators Nato Thompson and Rashida Bumbray both stated that Xenobia Bailey is funk: her way of making work is also her way of living, and she is uniquely situated to reflect back upon a black radical Brooklyn that she has witnessed and given voice to for decades. Situated within one of the original Weeksville houses, Century 21 feels like half future, half ghost story. The designed furniture, weavings, and decorative elements are almost too simple, yet completely essential. The aesthetics of homemaking are much more complex when home is all we have.
Like ongoing, self-determined community, funkgodjazz&medicine has not come easily. Negotiating partnerships and formulating meaningful relationships that go beyond the service of the art itself has been a deeply complicated process. Bumbray has a background in performance that gives her a nuanced understanding of the living complexities involved in planning and presenting social practice work. (Performance is also an inherently collaborative form, and focused on conversation: the presence of another person is essential.) Bumbray highlighted the importance of social practice as an art form that can create an ethical continuum of care. Yet both she and Thompson emphasized the challenges of building and maintaining the partnerships inherent in bringing this work to the public. Thompson referred to the process as “like working on quicksand,” offering a metaphor that suggests community is not necessarily a stable thing. Bumbray’s metaphor was slightly less disaster-laden, but still emphasized motion: “It’s like everything [in Bed-Stuy] is on wheels in a way, even though it’s been there for so long.” The “funk” and “medicine” of funkgodjazz&medicine, though temporary, feel rooted, giving us something to hold onto even as we know the project, and the world it holds dear, may be slipping away. In a tenuous time, Leigh and Bailey are working to give us back the always: the small, everyday gestures that over time make up community, and without which we quickly lose it. As Thompson concluded, “We do this constantly. [We] are in the care of other people whether we like it or not. We could go on and on and on.”