Editor’s Note: This week’s contribution is by Malesha Taylor who furthers the discussion on how artists are leading the way in creating new narratives and models of creative practice. The original conversation was first presented at the Arts In A Changing America REMAP: Bay Area’s Future Conversations panel “Artists Changing the Course of the River.”
I am honored and thankful to be apart of this conversation: how we can remap and change the course of the river. Maps and rivers involve lines, sometimes to divide and sometimes to nourish and draw in. They also define flow, movement and the rhythm of communities. In my art practice, I am seeking opportunities to bring the arts to people directly without the barriers and invisible lines we find between audiences and performers. I am aligning my work with my values which are centered in social justice and bringing more power back to the people who make up our communities.
I am the founder of museSalon Collaborative, a social enterprise bridging the gap between artists and the community through interdisciplinary dialogue, collaborative productions and creative consultancies. We seek to expand the narrative in all parts of society and use the arts as a vehicle, by telling new and different stories from multiple perspectives. Using a membership model, our goal is to empower artists, activists and cultural producers of color to make their projects a reality by pooling our resources and building networks in multiple cities to keep us mobile and able to do our work.
I first came in contact with Roberta Uno through an article I published on HowlRound where I share my experience working in new audience development. I talk about how I believe audiences should reflect the community, and building relationships in the community is the first step to building an audience. I realized as a performing artist from a classical tradition, I would have to be a pioneer in making my art form more accessible and inclusive. I wanted to do a project that addressed elitism and race and truly expressed my authentic self. Guerrilla Opera was the project that started me on this journey. It was eventually included in the BRIC exhibition, “Cultural Fluency: Engagements with Contemporary Brooklyn.” Now, I am working on, “Girl Sings Opera,” which is a recital and conversation piece that addresses race, class and classical music. I believe these conversations are essential in developing our core values and best practices in the American arts ecosystem.
I asked Hye-Yun, one of the other panelists in this conversation, about one of her videos where she discusses the rolling class: people of color who work for wealthy white people and are often found pushing objects with wheels in NYC. I asked her if she had ever confronted the person she worked for in her video. This person who treated her, at times, like a child and, more specifically, like she didn’t know how to wash her own hands. Hye-Yun said she had not confronted this employer. Someone in the audience asked me if I have confronted people like this in my life. I stated that I had not experienced blatant moments of oppression where I would have the opportunity to speak up (hmm, looking back, I’m sure I did). I also spoke about seeing others through the eye-of-compassion, and that not everyone is on the same level of consciousness at all times. Though I believe these things to be true, I also believe it is important to respond to anyone who offends or attempts to silence me in the moment that it happens. Using “I statements . . ,” I can express what doesn’t sit well with me and direct the negative energy out of my system. I think I have experienced so many micro-aggressions, closed doors and unanswered emails, that I missed many opportunities to respond, and not responding deeply affects my aura, my core and my art practice. Seeing with the eye-of- compassion keeps my heart-center open so I can continue to do my work. But, having compassion does not mean tolerating injustice.
As a vanguard artist, community-builder and most importantly a black woman, I cannot make art without addressing inequity, economics, and without my Village. I believe the Village is where we find our strength to be who we are. It is our mothers (spiritual or physical) that gave us life and it is aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors that we need to live beyond basic existence. I am in the business of building communities, villages and collective consciousness to maximize loving potential on the planet. That being said, I ask these questions on a practical level: Where are the operas and symphonic works that tell our stories of struggle, resistance and reflect the colorful landscape of our villages? Why aren’t there more arts leaders of color? Why do foundations fund with a “top-down” mentality instead of funding directly to those who are doing work in our communities?
The answer to these questions is the same answer to most everything. The opinions, ideas and interests of the 1% have been made more important than those of the 99%. Until this is addressed and shifted, 99% of people will continue to not attend institutions (universities, theaters, operas, symphonies, etc.). That said, it is up to artists to keep doing our own work in our communities whether this change happens quickly or not. In the meantime, my Light must shine. I cannot wait.
As I continue to evolve and tides of the river shift, I have to be patient with myself, with my community and with anyone who crosses my path. With my art practice and my organization, I am able to give and receive, inhale and exhale. It is miraculous and full, and I encourage others to enter that same circle, find your village, connect to community, and do what brings you joy.
Malesha Jessie Taylor is a vocal artist, educator, and founder of museSalon. Her website is www.musesalon.org.