In 2018, Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Creative Futures, a new initiative funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, making possible a transformative vision of community engagement: collaborative creation in the arts that is informed by faculty research and driven by students. The grant is anchored by a cohort of four artists diverse in background, expertise, and form of artistic expression, each bringing a unique perspective as well as experience in social practice to the role: vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis, singer/songwriter Shara Nova, performer and writer Okwui Okpokwasili, and musician, curator, and producer Toshi Reagon.
The Creative Futures initiative features a series of multi-year artistic projects that engage artists, communities, faculty and students in co-creative partnerships. The four artists have assembled “triangular collaborations” that include partners from among UNC’s faculty who are engaged in community-based research as well as local partners in the community. These co-creative partnerships have led the Creative Futures artists toward identifying multi-year projects that will empower communities to express their creativity and channel relevant issues.
The artists made their first visits to UNC and CPA in fall 2018, and have continued to collaborate remotely and on site, working in partnership with Rothwell Mellon Program Director for Creative Futures Christopher Massenburg, who says the fellowship “intentionally fosters collaboration among different communities of knowledge and insight that don’t always have the opportunity to work together.”
By Michele Lynn
The process of making art can be a powerful catalyst for creating community. With that in mind, in summer 2018, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) launched Creative Futures, an initiative funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Creative Futures brings together four visionary artists—Helga Davis, Shara Nova, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Toshi Reagon—to collaborate with UNC faculty, local community members, and one another.
Christopher Massenburg, Rothwell Mellon Program Director for Creative Futures, says the fellowship “intentionally fosters a deeper collaboration among different communities of knowledge and insight that don’t always have the opportunity to work together.”
“With Creative Futures, we wanted to foster co-creation,” says Amy Russell, CPA’s director of programming, “But first, we needed to acknowledge the many boundaries to collaboration that exist across communities of artists, organizers, and scholars and then ask our fellows to move across those boundaries to invite communal self-expression.”
“I live in many fields of saying ‘yes’: yes, I will work on that film; yes, I will curate this conversation; yes, I will write a song,” says Helga Davis. Often described as a vocalist and performance artist, Davis sees her work as a mirror for people.
Davis believes that developing a piece with Shara Nova about their relationship will be valuable for the larger community. “Shara and I have a lot of conversations about being women of different races, and how we experience those things in the world as performers and as people who are concerned about the communities in which we live,” says Davis.
“We’re not coming from the outside to tell people what to do, how smart we are, and what we know and they don’t,” says Davis. “This is an opportunity to see what the community is holding and to help them hold it.”
As visiting curator for performing arts at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Davis has experience in commissioning people from the community to create work and conversations around a myriad of topics. “That experience has fattened me up for understanding the importance of how to do it somewhere else, and I’m looking forward to bringing that to Chapel Hill,” she says.
Davis and Nova’s work will include a piece that involves local musicians and community. “The work will manifest itself in song and there will be dialogue,” says Davis. “The big thing for us is to take our concerns for our society and for ourselves and bring that into the work and include as many people as we can into that dialogue. We want to make something that serves as a snapshot and as a place on a road that we might be able to take as a society.”
OKWUI OKPOKWASILI IS BUILDING A SONIC LANDSCAPE.
Okwui Okpokwasili, whose 2018 MacArthur Fellow biography describes her as a “performer, choreographer, and writer creating multidisciplinary performance pieces,” seeks to use the practices of art and performance to build bridges and bonds. Holding space where community members can be in dialogue with each other and learn from one another is critically important to her.
“My project is to build a platform for the creation of an ongoing improvisational song,” she says. Okpokwasili, who is cultivating relationships with local community artists, “develops strategies and exercises that allow us to engage in conversations with people we know and people we don’t know. And from these conversations we start to build a sonic landscape.”
“That landscape could be lyrical, melodic songs, cries, shouts,” she says. Working with local artists—including Murielle Elizeon and Tommy Noonan, co-directors of the Saxapahaw-based performing arts collective Culture Mill—Okpokwasili and her collaborative partner Peter Born will create a space to develop an “improvisational public song comprised of sounds and movement.”
Okpokwasili believes that this work is the perfect way to integrate CPA’s “desire to reach out into the community in a deeper and more sustained relationship.” She says that building community and having individuals communicate with one another are at the heart of her work.
“I hope that this work builds deeper connections with the artists who are part of the larger Chapel Hill community who might find that they might not be seen or feel welcome in some of these spaces,” she says. “I also hope that this fellowship with other incredible artists will help the Chapel Hill community recognize how vital arts practices are to a strong, sustainable, and healthy community.”
SHARA NOVA WANTS TO EXPLORE HOW TO HEAR EACH OTHER MORE CLEARLY.
There are three branches to the musical life of Shara Nova: composer, singer/ songwriter for My Brightest Diamond, and singer of music by other composers. With Creative Futures, Nova and fellow artist-in-residence Helga Davis—who have been friends for more than ten years—are creating a piece with the women’s choir at Durham’s Northern High School. They are working with choir director Rachel Spencer alongside faculty partner Tanya Shields, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at UNC. “We interview choir members, ask them questions to better understand their life and how race impacts their experience. From those conversations, we are creating the musical work that will be performed,” says Nova. “The students are from lots of different places and varied experiences and backgrounds. That was appealing to me because I’m most interested in bridging gaps of misunderstanding and exploring difference, as well as affirming our common humanity.” Nova says that the job of artists is to provide a safe environment for people to say what they are feeling and talk about their experience.
The work will be incorporated into Body Vessel, a piece Nova and Davis are creating based on their friendship and lives as people with different skin color and different experiences.
“Much of the prep work I have done for this piece happens before I have a conversation with the students. I’ve needed to investigate my own southern family history, and also learn to see my “psychology” as part of a larger picture, rather than being so individualistic in my understanding,” says Nova. She continues, “The reality is that because of our skin color and the cultural taboos we as Americans have talking about race, I’ve had to learn a new practice of communication in our friendship and one I’m deeply grateful for. Helga and I want to share with people the love we have for each other and create a space for us all: to self examine and to listen.”
Nova says that the personal nature of the work is important. “We’re not trying to have a big conversation about skin color that is outside of ourselves,” she says. “It’s a very personal examination.”
TOSHI REAGON IS A FORCE OF NATURE.
Toshi Reagon, a Brooklyn-based singer, composer, musician, curator, activist, and producer, has already spent significant time at Carolina since 2017, thanks to her role as CPA’s inaugural Mellon Foundation Discovery Through Iterative Learning (DisTIL) Fellow in 2017/2018. “I’m grateful that Creative Futures will let me stay in this community, which I love,” says Reagon. “Chapel Hill has a strong black community oral tradition, leading scholars, amazing activists, and great artists, and I’m excited to continue to work with all of them.” The economy, survival, and music are the threads that Reagon is braiding together during her Creative Futures fellowship. By facilitating dialogue in the community and in classes on campus, Reagon will create connections by exploring what can be learned and listening to the stories told and conversations had.
One of her planned projects is a series of musicals, each of which will “explore something thematic around the issues related to the economy and survival,” says Reagon. She plans to expand on discoveries from her DisTIL partnership with UNC associate professor Renée Alexander Craft and collaborate with other faculty, students and “the amazing musical family in the Triangle,” researching pressing issues and making art that will spur a conversation with the public. This semester, she is collaborating on a UNC course with Alexander Craft and professor Joseph Megel that will culminate in a performance by students.
“There are going to be a lot of public offerings that will foster communication,” says Reagon. “I hope to bring a deep level of in-depth conversation and interaction that can serve as a point of transformation for this community.”
THE GIFT OF FELLOWSHIP
Massenburg says that Creative Futures is designed to “lift up the voices of women in art, to make sure that they are supported not only in acclaim for their work but also in terms of resources and capacity.”
“To create amazing work, you need the opportunity to have funding, space, and support to be able to create sustainably,” he says. “We have the opportunity to do that with this project, especially for women of color.”
Reagon agrees. “Getting support, not just so that you are able to function in your life, but support for the vision that you have is exciting and beautiful,” she says. “This fellowship allows me to be in another part of the country I adore, to expand community, to learn and receive from people, and produce new work.”
She appreciates that Carolina Performing Arts is bringing artists into the community for “in-depth conversation and interaction as a point of transformation.” She says that CPA’s ongoing commitment to fostering these collaborations can help dissolve boundaries. “This deep investment continues to increase the possibility for art to have an impact on education, both on campus and in the community,” says Reagon.
The duration of the grant is unprecedented, in Nova’s experience. “To be able to spend four years with a community is very different than coming in to do a big event and then leaving,” she says. “Having the opportunity to be in a community with the time to figure out how you can best serve that community is a unique experience.”
Okpokwasili is grateful to have support in a way she hasn’t experienced before. “Having the space to make more mistakes, to really push, to be completely liberated from some idea of a finished piece and to dive deeply into the rigors of the practice is a gift,” she says. “This partnership— the university, the resources, the rigor of the academy in creating a space that feels really wild—is exciting.”
“This fellowship gives us an opportunity to work over a period of time and figure out how to continue the conversations we start,” says Davis. “That’s a huge thing for me as an artist, and as someone who cares about the sustainability of the work. It’s such a tremendous opportunity for the four of us to be resources for one another, to be mirrors for one another, and to be in deep sisterhood and friendship.”
CREATING THE FUTURE
In conversation, Reagon mentions the giant garage door that is part of the theater space at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio.
“That signifies something at the heart of how CPA would like to impact this community,” says Reagon. “It says that this door is open and anything is possible.” •
The Andrew W. Mellon DisTIL Fellowship (Discovery Through Iterative Learning) brings artists to UNC’s campus for multiple semesters. These unique residencies do not focus upon an individual performance. Instead, they bring the resources of the university’s faculty to inspire and inform artists’ artistic process.
DisTIL Fellows collaborate with faculty in a department outside of their own area of expertise, providing them with the opportunity to gain new insights into the questions that they have been asking about their work and the world and, in return, inspire and inform artists’ artistic processes. At the same time, the DisTIL Fellow will bring the unique creativity and approach of the arts to the work of the faculty, helping push UNC faculty and students to look at their work with a new lens, and share their work with new audiences.
The DisTIL Fellowship extends over several semesters as a way to recognize that collaboration does not happen overnight. It requires many meetings and time to build the shared trust, respect, and vocabulary that can allow for artistic and intellectual exchanges to take place. DisTIL Fellows spend 2-3 years visiting campus, connecting with faculty, and sharing the results of their ideas and discussions with the wider community.
Grammy award-winning vocalist, songwriter and clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn has been selected as the third-ever Andrew W. Mellon Foundation DisTIL Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts. Find information about her upcoming DisTIL events at soundsilence.org.
A fluent speaker of Mandarin with profound connections to communities and traditions both global and local, she is known for creating inventive cross-cultural takes on folk and old-time music. Ms. Washburn is certain to bring an engaging, eye-opening presence to her work with Carolina Performing Arts and the community on campus and beyond.
Women’s Work: On Motherhood with Abigail Washburn and Ariana Vigil
Thursday, March 19, 2:30 PM
CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio
Free and open to the public
Join Abigail Washburn (Carolina Performing Arts DisTIL Fellow), Ariana Vigil (Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill), and special guests for a conversation on how the work of mothering shapes the political, personal, and creative lives of women, and the radical potential of finding new forms of motherhood.
Part of CPA’s Women’s Work series, which investigates the often invisible labor of women in relation to the arts, this event was curated in partnership with the UNC-Chapel Hill Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Free and open to the public. Coffee, tea, and light snacks will be provided.
Known worldwide for merging choreography with visual art and design, Jonah Bokaer has created 62 original works spanning dance, drawing, motion capture work, interactive installations, film, and more. His work also includes the creation of four original apps that invite audiences to participate in live performance, making him the first choreographer to design such an app.
Bokaer is the founder of Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates Jonah Bokaer Choreography and the independent artspace “Chez Bushwick” (both founded in 2002); CPR – Center for Performance Research (founded 2008); and Space 428 (founded 2016). He is the fourth-ever Andrew W. Mellon Foundation DisTil Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts.
Public Workshop: Indecent Spaces
A collaboration between Jonah Bokaer Choreography, Charles Kurzman, Charles Renfro / DS+R, Angela & Jennifer Chun, and local UNC Partners
Thursday, March 26, 7:30 PM
CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio
Free and open to the public; RSVP via Eventbrite
Indecent Spaces is a collaborative performance work exploring connections between identity, gender, race, and space by Jonah Bokaer Choreography, Mellon Discovery through Iterative Learning (DisTIL) fellow at Carolina Performing Arts, in partnership with architect Charles Renfro / DS+R, collaborating principally with UNC distinguished sociologist Charlie Kurtzman. Rare music by Isang Yun is allowed by world-renowned violinists Jennifer and Angela Chun. Through dance, three-dimensional video art, architectural elements, social commentary, and music, Indecent Spaces explores the complex histories of the United States—including inquiry into the social architecture of UNC—with participating citizens, their bodies, and themes of singularity, binarity, and the freedom to choose new alternatives.
A musician, composer, and activist, Toshi Reagon brings an approach driven by social consciousness and community engagement. The inaugural Mellon Foundation DisTIL fellow, Reagon premiered her opera adaptation of the novel Parable of the Sower with two sold-out performances at CPA in November 2017, spearheaded community readings and discussions of the novel in collaboration with Durham-based community arts organization SpiritHouse, and organized talks based around the novel’s themes and pressing contemporary issues. Her other projects include a collaboration with faculty members to create short videos exploring their scholarly projects and passions. All of this discovery will culminate in a festival in the spring of 2019, bringing all the creative threads for a day of music, ideas, and conversation. Reagon will also perform in the 18/19 season with her band BIGLOVELY.
Artist, puppet designer, and director Robin Frohardt has highlighted our insatiable consumption of plastic in creative and humorous ways. Her residency, which ended in April 2018, featured many playful, unexpected projects. She created quilts from plastic bags with UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South; co-founded Plastic Archaeology (Instagram and Tumblr accounts cataloguing the mundane bits of plastic that silently structure our lives) with UNC archaeology professors Anna Agbe-Davies and Eric Deetz; and, in April 2018, she headlined CPA’s “Plasticon,” a free community festival that paired her art and film with cutting-edge research on sustainability, as well as stations inspired by her various activities in Chapel Hill over the course of the fellowship.
The world premiere of her installation Plastic Bag Store will take place at the start of the 18/19 season and feature art made with materials collected and created during her residency.
Writer and musician Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture) brought his project for developing non-Western digital music-making tools to UNC. Building on work conducted with musicians in Morocco to create a tool called Sufi Plug Ins, Clayton collaborated with ethnography, electronic music, and sound engineering students, as well as archivists to engage with local ethnic groups and develop new, culturally-reflective digital music-making tools. Clayton’s professorship culminated with SOUND – SITE – ECHO, a performance series that took place in locations across the Triangle. For a complete event listing, click here.
Nina Chanel Abney is a visual artist and muralist focused on provoking thought and conversation through work on politics, race, celebrity, and consumerism. Riding wide acclaim and several prominent museum appearances, including a solo exhibition at Duke’s Nasher Museum, Abney connected with a range of departments at UNC and collaborated students from UNC’s ARTS 290 class to create a mural on the UNC Morrison Dorm basketball court, which was unveiled on April 6, 2018.
To learn more about Nina’s work at Duke University, click here.