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Learn and unlearn: a conversation with Danièle Dennis

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

 

Danièle Dennis is a keenly cognizant and inquisitive individual. Of self, of self as an African descendant, of self as a Jamaican, of self as Canadian, Of self as an African/Jamaican/Canadian living in North America, Of self as an African/Jamaican/Canadian artist working within a Western art historical context, of self in relation to her environment and community. Dennis is cognizant of her own potential biases and seeks to diverge away from them.   “What is constantly marinating in my mind is the notion of learning and unlearning.” She tells me this in talking about freeing herself from previous predispositions about what she might know so as to open herself up for change and knowledge.  Dennis is currently in the middle of her graduate studies in Philadelphia and she’s quick to point out the inertia of her experience there as a student when I asked. “I haven’t yet had the opportunity to truly experience Philly as I recognize that my current ‘reality’ isn’t reality at all. My world revolves mainly around being on campus, at the studio or at home.”  

It is with this sheer critical contemplation of self and lived experiences that drives Dennis’ work.  Above all the complexities and incisive inquires she provokes in her artwork, Dennis manoeuvres against categorization and fixed identity. Presenting her body as a center to her work, she confronts and expands the conversation on the politics around the racialized other in a space where the Western art observer continue to do a disservice by  constantly placing artists of diaspora within an ethnic other bracket.

Our conversation with Dennis traveled around the politics of the body, reading beyond the title of works labeled with an 'identity politics' tag, her exploration of dancing as a self care activity and a little on her memories growing up as creative kid.

 

 

 

"It’s interesting to see things turned on their heads, especially things that are seemingly rational [...] what is constantly marinating in my mind is the notion of learning and unlearning. I recognize that learning doesn’t just happen within the four walls of the institution but outside as well. That said, I applied nonetheless for grad school, being in this conundrum of appreciating the institution’s value but also recognizing its limitations. Absurdity is a way of dissecting epistemology, questioning how we know what we know.

 

 

 

 

 

How has your experience in Philly been so far?

Time is constantly escaping me. Given that I am here pursuing my education, I have so much reading to do for class in addition to working part-time.  I haven’t yet had the opportunity to truly experience Philly as I recognize that my current ‘reality’ isn’t reality at all. My world revolves mainly around being on campus, at the studio or at home. I’m looking forward to experiencing various facets of the city and to actually engage with more people. 

 

What were some of your expectations coming into the program and starting out?

I didn’t know what to expect or arrive with specific expectations in mind. I couldn’t afford to fly out and thus missed the open house event, so most of what I had heard about the program was based on conversations with faculty and students, as well as what I read online. I was open to whatever was going to be thrown my way.

 

 

 

 

Your new work has seen you performing in rather open and public spaces. Was this your first public performance?

No, it wasn’t. My first public performance was called Splitting Hairs, in which I attempted to separate hair collected from a local barbershop in Toronto into two piles, one pile representing all the “black” hair. In this performance, there was no interaction with the crowd. I’ve also been a performer for other artists; for instance last year I worked with Jefferson Pinder during which myself and three other black performers were tasked with running naked on a treadmill for a certain duration, again the audience interaction was limited to their gaze. Some of the performances I staged during my residency in Lugo were public, however, there wasn’t an explicit invitation shared with the viewer. Asides for one exception, most opted to remain a spectator to the activity although there was the possibility of engaging further (that is, by entering the cube). It’s interesting to consider how the presence of the camera can create boundaries between the audience and performer.

 

 

"There is space for multiplicity of meaning, complexity and nuances. If I choose to discuss something political, it doesn’t negate a work’s engagement in other realms as well. There are many profoundly talented black artists that don’t receive the acclaim they deserve because their work is interpreted in such a narrow-minded way. The history that we are thought in school is a very specific perspective, yet there are other histories happening simultaneously, how are we then getting the full story? What is being privileged, and why?"

 

 

 

You are exploring aspects of ‘carnival’ in your newer work and you are engaging with people around during the performances. Can talk where this new interest arose from?   

In this piece, I’m attempting to unpack or reframe this notion of carnival. This was my first piece where an audience interacts directly with me – a few such moments are captured in the audio. What is not shown in the video are the moments where people are peering at me from their cars or from across the street. One of the approaches in the video was to extend an invitation to anyone who was willing to engage with me. I tried to persuade them that carnival was in fact happening and that they should join me by taking part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Performance Stills from rescidency in Lugo 

 

 

You were recently part of a rescidency in Lugo, can you talk about the performances you created along with its sculptural components? 

I am interested in dance and, as I’ve explored in past work, the use of my body as material. I’ve been contemplating dance as a form of self-care, an approach to releasing tension from the body. I’m also of Jamaican decent so dancing is heavily embedded within my culture. While in Italy, I performed these dances at regular intervals for over the course of two weeks. It became a negotiation between the unfamiliar landscape, the constructed structure and my body performing a self-care ritual.

There was a moment on the field where the mud covering my shoes weighed heavily on me, making it difficult and exhausting to perform the dance movement, movements I’d been accustomed to I suppose. What was interesting what this reliance on muscle memory, yet all of a sudden when the mud became an obstacle, it became a question of how to express my rhythm.  There’s also the question of people watching me as I am engaging in these movements and how their presence impacts me both consciously and subconsciously.

 

 

 

 

 

"I live in a world that constantly reminds me of my difference, shall I not in return ask it to confront its assumptions and myths, it chooses to tell about me?"

 

 

 

 

 

There seems to be a reoccurrence of hair in you work, can you talk about why you think you kept returning to hair?

Hair is a material I used in past work. At the time, I was interested in questioning and unpacking social norms that perhaps at a certain point I failed to question. Shed offered a different way of considering black hair, but also blackness in its placement within the walls of predominantly white institutions. I’m still interested in the ideas I was exploring then, but now using different materials.

 

 

 Tradition (Video Still)

 

Try A Little Tenderness (Video Still) 

 

Color Me Bad (Video Still)

 

In a lot of your performances you seem to juxtapose a lot of materials and elements together including hair, cotton candy, rice, dancing in the middle of a field, and now drawing in passerbys for a carnival. On the outside, there's an absurdity to these actions…what’s your relationship with absurdity as kind of a device for communicating and engaging with your ideas ?

It’s interesting to see things turned on their heads, especially things that are seemingly rational. When I graduated from University of Toronto, I had finally obtained this piece of paper stating that I had accomplished something, yet I recall feeling as though I didn’t know anything. What is constantly marinating in my mind is the notion of learning and unlearning. I recognize that learning doesn’t just happen within the four walls of the institution but outside as well. That said, I applied nonetheless for grad school, being in this conundrum of appreciating the institution’s value but also recognizing its limitations. Absurdity is a way of dissecting epistemology, questioning how we know what we know.

 

The context for where art is situated is significant to receiving it. Would you say the black body is politicized in Canada? Your work seems to refer to the presence your body and its attribute as being black...how do you think you see/think through your body in relation to this within the spaces you insert it (as in your performances)?

Yes, the black body is politicized. My person is political. I live in a world that constantly reminds me of my difference, shall I not in return ask it to confront its assumptions and myths, it chooses to tell about me? This world I live in picks and chooses as it pleases, for instance when I am visible -- why shouldn’t I make work about this?

 

Do you think work that explicitly presents itself as “political identity” shuts down the other nuances of the work?

Why are things so often limited to binaries? Why is it ‘either’, ‘or’ but rarely ‘also’? There is space for multiplicity of meaning, complexity and nuances. If I choose to discuss something political, it doesn’t negate a work’s engagement in other realms as well. There are many profoundly talented black artists that don’t receive the acclaim they deserve because their work is interpreted in such a narrow-minded way. The history that we are thought in school is a very specific perspective, yet there are other histories happening simultaneously, how are we then getting the full story? What is being privileged, and why?

 

It is rare to see the black body reflected throughout art history (esp. in Canada) let alone performance based work through its history. Who were you looking at that stir you into pursuing making work like you do now?

When I started researching performance artists of color, I was drawn to Ana Mendieta, Patty Chang and Adrian Piper. I was drawn to Piper’s piece Catharsis IV, where she’s documented herself walking in public with a white bath towel stuffed into her mouth; I was particularly intrigued by the impact of confrontation with the viewer.  The ways in which these women tackled notions of identity, womanhood, femininity among other important subjects I found so powerful. As I started to get more involved in the local Toronto arts community, I started to uncover Black artists in Canada such as Deanna Bowen (who I had the pleasure of having as a Professor), Camille Turner, and Jessica Karuhanga. Canadian institutions should do more to actively support Canadian artists of colour by including them in visual art courses and textbooks.

 

 

How was it like being out of school and directing/making your own independent  creative work?

I was out of school for about a year between June 2015 and August 2016. It was an exciting time firstly because I began to exhibit work nationally, and secondly, it was the period in which we (Tiffany Schofield, Dorica Manuel, Daniel Griffin Hunt and I) conceived of Y+ contemporary. Being out of school means you don’t have access to the same feedback mechanism as one would through the institution. Among the Y+ members and our surrounding community, we were able to build a network where we could gain insight from our peers.

Released from the grips of school, I felt as though there were no more rules to abide by; I no longer had to follow the parameters of an assignment. However, you then start to realize the rules that you self-impose, perhaps subconsciously, within your own practice.  I’m working on allowing myself to step outside of my personal boundaries and aesthetic complacencies.

 

Have you always been creatively inclined?

My mom would reply yes and show you some drawings I did as a kid, which aren’t horribly embarrassing. As a child I was interested in drawing, and as I got older I became interested in fashion, which I studied in college prior to obtaining my Bachelor of Arts in visual studies. I still love the creativity of clothing, paying special attention to the seemingly minor yet intricate details. I’ve found art to be a language of sorts, my preferred way of expressing myself.

 

What kind of a kid were you growing up?  Did you do any after school programs?

I grew up with Brandi, my older sister, and Michael, my younger brother. I was a good kid, corrupted only by my sister ;) I went along with everything Brandi said until I started to form a mind of my own. I was born in Montreal and lived there until I was about 14-15 years old. We didn’t have much money for after school programs, so we would walk to the library and were allowed to take out 5 books each, of which 3 had to be in French. We’d get around that by taking out comic books like Lucky Luke, Astérix et Obélix, Tintin and le petit Spirou. I think I read Dragonball Z in English though.

I also played soccer, and did sprinting, relay and cross-country running.  Every so often I slip back into running as it’s so therapeutic.

 

What are some of your early memories of making something you can consider to be creative; looking back now?

I used to make Christmas and birthday cards, which my mom has kept. My parents would argue over which of them we had inherited our creativity from. I’m inclined to say my dad but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my mom’s serious knitting skills, which deserve an honourable mention.

 

 

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