Sarah Stefana Smith wearing a royal blue blazer, blue glasses, and a blue patterned scarf

 

How are Black women artists harnessing texture, transparency, and bafflement to forge forms of belonging beyond the nation? How might the vulnerability of collaboration provide a model for teaching as well as scholarship? How does the concept of amending allow us to reconfigure citizenship and affiliation?

In episode 96 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with artist and scholar Sarah Stefana Smith about how Sarah uses a poetics and politics of bafflement to trace how Black art takes shape across national borders, the pleasures and challenges of artistic collaborations in both the short and the long term, and why troubling easy assumptions about mending and making amends is how Sarah imagines otherwise.

Guest: Sarah Stefana Smith

Sarah Stefana Smith is a postdoctoral fellow of academic diversity at American University and will begin an assistant professorship in gender studies at Mount Holyoke College in July 2020. Her research communicates between Black feminism, queer of color critique, visuality, and aesthetics.

For many years, Sarah has cultivated a studio practice alongside her research. Her art work moves between photography, sculpture, and installation and uses barrier materials—bird and safety netting, chicken wire, and fishing line—to comment on boundaries between humans and other species, lines of demarcation around difference (race, gender, and sexuality), and how modes of difference are used to constitute and congeal belonging.

She received her PhD in social justice education from the University of Toronto and has published in The Black Scholar, Women & Performance, and Drain Journal of Art and Culture.

Sarah’s current book project, Poetics of Bafflement: Aesthetics of Frustration, examines how cultural taste and value in the era of multiculturalism shape national identities in South Africa and the United States, revealing implicit values about who matters, who produces legitimate art, and ways of doing resistance. Looking towards contemporary art by South African and African American Black women artists, the book articulates a methodology of bafflement to excavate how artists disrupt cohesive nationalist identities.

We chatted about

  • A poetics of bafflement (03:01)
  • The intersections between media literacy, power, and storytelling (06:43)
  • For Peggy: Hauntologies of Descent (08:36)
  • The vulnerability of collaboration (12:00)
  • How and why Sarah uses barrier materials in her artwork (18:27)
  • Imagining otherwise (25:12)

Takeaways

A poetics of bafflement

A poetics of bafflement, for me, enters into a conversation with a lot of contemporary art scholarship, critical race scholarship, and Black feminist scholarship that’s thinking about not just representation but vision and visual reality itself. How do we think about ways of knowing and ways of approaching an art text in ways that allow for the work to do more than just recuperate or recover a harmed body? Bafflement is this sort of space, the space of pause, as a form of confusion, frustration, and disease and becomes the methodological and theoretical scaffolding with which I approach contemporary work.

Intersections of media literacy, power, and storytelling

Before I did graduate school, I was a teaching artist and I led media literacy trainings for groups of community members who were interested in either organizing or unionizing high school students. We would do trainings around technology so that they could tell their stories. So the creative storytelling element has always been a part of my process as a cultural producer and its relationship to big questions of who matters, how we think about equity, what does it actually mean to make to make something just or right, and what are the stakes of that.

The vulnerability of collaboration

In terms of longer collaboration, I think of it as still starting from that place of curiosity and interest, but moving into the direction of trust where it is probably inevitable that some element of failure is going to happen. But then figuring out ways to not just anticipate but negotiate the challenge of creating something that might not be what you thought it was going to be emerges.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world that is capacious enough to imagine a range of lives and experiences and that listens to those who are often framed as the margin. I think that functions on a lot of different levels. For the kind of contemporary moment we’re in, we’re in this space of inclusion and diversity, certainly on institutional levels. [I want] those projects of inclusion and diversity to actually focus on structural change rather than rhetorics of inclusion and there be investments in building relationships with people.

More from Sarah

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 96 and my guest today is Sarah Stefana Smith.

Sarah is a postdoctoral fellow of academic diversity at American University and will begin an assistant professorship in gender studies at Mount Holyoke College in July 2020. Her research communicates between Black feminism, queer of color critique, visuality, and aesthetics.

For many years, Sarah has cultivated a studio practice alongside her research. Her art work moves between photography, sculpture, and installation and uses barrier materials—bird and safety netting, chicken wire, and fishing line—to comment on how modes of difference are used to constitute and congeal belonging.

She received her PhD in social justice education from the University of Toronto and has published in The Black Scholar, Women & Performance, and Drain Journal of Art and Culture.

Sarah’s current book project, which we talk about in our interview, is called Poetics of Bafflement: Aesthetics of Frustration and examines how cultural taste and value in the era of multiculturalism shape national identities in South Africa and the United States, revealing implicit values about who matters, who produces legitimate art, and ways of doing resistance.

[01:35] In our interview, Sarah and I chat about how Sarah uses a poetics and politics of bafflement to trace how Black art takes shape across national borders, the pleasures and challenges of artistic collaborations in both the short and the long term, and why troubling easy assumptions about mending and making amends is how Sarah imagines otherwise.

[to Sarah] Thank you so much for being with us today, Sarah.

Sarah Stefana Smith: I’m really excited to speak with you, Cathy. Thank you.

Cathy: Your work explores the intersections of race, virtuality, and gender, particularly through the work of artists from across the Black diaspora. I know you’re working on a book about what you call the poetics of bafflement and I’d love to talk a little bit more about this. What does that book project cover and what got you interested in bafflement as a poetic and a political strategy?

Sarah: I have a studio-based practice and that has always been one connected to my research and scholarly work. I actually see them as tandem processes. So this idea of bafflement was something that I would always encounter as a creative producer in terms of troubleshooting or managing the unknown when it revolved around the material that I might be exploring. It became a method and way of grappling with confusion and frustration in terms of how I could manipulate a material.

[03:01] In addition, I’ve always been interested in Black art and thinking about the relational ways that Black art functions when you’re looking at artists from kind of all over within the United States, but also other parts of the world. A lot of my scholarly upbringing has forced me to contend with different ways that Black art takes shape across national borders.

The book that I’m working on is called Poetics of Bafflement: Aesthetics of Frustration and considers just that within the contemporary moment and specifically the space and time of the 1990s to the present—what I call the era of multiculturalism. I look at beliefs and values that circulate in the United States and South Africa, two very different geographical locations, for the ways in which beliefs and values around what constitutes Black art, who produces Black art, what that looks like, and what forms of resistance are able to be celebrated as a core question.

[04:16] I’m specifically looking at Black women’s cultural production in those two spaces for the way in which their work gets taken up in this space of multiculturalism. What I mean by that are institutional spaces that rely on rhetorical ideas around diversity and inclusion and so incorporate minority Black aesthetics as a way of addressing that without necessarily responding to systematic forms of inequality on an institutional level. I’m interested in the way in which Black art both gets pulled into those kinds of conversation for support and is supposed to do certain kinds of work and then the way in which the work actually exceeds that.

[05:10] A poetics of bafflement, for me, enters into a conversation with a lot of contemporary art scholarship, critical race scholarship, and Black feminist scholarship that’s thinking about not just representation but vision and visual reality itself. How do we think about ways of knowing and ways of approaching an art text in ways that allow for the work to do more than just recuperate or recover a harmed body? Bafflement is this sort of space, the space of pause, as a form of confusion, frustration, and disease and becomes the methodological and theoretical scaffolding with which I approach contemporary work.

To give you an example, one of the chapters looks at surface [in the work] of African American painter Mickalene Thomas and surface [in the work of] South African photographer and Zanelle Muholi to think about how they explore the idea of the sublime. In many ways I’m thinking about exploding some of the conversations that happen around figurative and representational work and abstractionist work. If we look at those works for the surface and the texture and the quality of light, what kinds of things are revealed that disrupt and confuse and frustrate other forms of interpretation?

Cathy [06:35]: That’s really interesting that creating works yourself led you to these kinds of scholarly questions, rather than the other way around.

Sarah [06:43]: Yeah. I mean, it’s been a long sort of windy road and I could talk more about always being a cultural producer and artist. Before I did graduate school, I was a teaching artist and I led media literacy trainings for groups of community members who were interested in either organizing or unionizing high school students. We would do trainings around technology so that they could tell their stories. So the creative storytelling element has always been a part of my process as a cultural producer and its relationship to big questions of who matters, how we think about equity, what does it actually mean to make to make something just or right, and what are the stakes of that.

It’s always interesting because sometimes I’m invited to this kind of conversation when I’m asked “How do you make time for your art practice in your academic practice?” But I don’t see them as separate at all. In many ways, they motivate each other. In terms of being an artist that makes objects, the materiality of it actually creates other avenues for me to think than more traditional academic ways when I’m invited to write an academic piece. So they inform and shape each other for sure.

Cathy [08:17]: I know in addition to your solo work, both your solo artwork and your solo research, you’re also collaborating quite a bit with poet Lauren Russell on a new project called Descent. First of all, can you tell our listeners a little bit about that project? And then I’d love to talk about what that process of collaboration is like.

Sarah [08:36]: Absolutely. I met Lauren Russell actually at an artist’s residency last year at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was putting the final touches on a poetry manuscript entitled Descent that explored the relationship between the archive and omission, specifically in relation to a journal that she received of her great-great-grandfather, who was a captain in the Confederate Army. He also had slaves and three of them were sisters who he all had children with. Lauren’s great-great-grandmother Peggy was this Confederate captain’s slave and her great- great grandmother. That manuscript produced several poetic renditions of family members that pose the questions, “How do we think about the subjectivity of Peggy? How do we think about other descendants in relation to the poet as researcher?”

[09:50] She was exploring that project and I have long been interested in this idea of opacity and visibility in terms of using archival data as a material in my installation work. She invited me to do an installation in relation to this. So right now the project is called For Peggy: Hauntologies of Descent and we’re working together to create an environment that can visualize some of the tensions that are explored in this poetry manuscript.

One of the ways that that has worked has been to create small residencies with each other. So in July we met up for a couple of days to brainstorm some metaphorical connections that emerged in the text. For the last month and a half, I have been creating sketches that pull together those materials. For example, some of the ways that Lauren writes about Peggy include spaces of domesticity; the sounds the Whip-poor-will; and the environment of Polk County, Texas, which has has and continues to have a large timber industry. Those components—the sound, the taste, the smells—become the data that I use to try to think about a visual environment that can speak to Peggy, as well as incorporating some of the text.

[11:08] In March, we will come together at her home institution to flesh out some of those sketched ideas. Other exciting components of this is that her project actually won an award, The Tarpauline Sky Book Award of 2019. So it’ll be coming out in 2020, right alongside this installation that we’re undertaking.

Cathy: What is it like to collaborate with someone? This is a topic that I’ve had conversations about with so many guests about on this show and I’m curious how you approach collaboration. How do you find people that might be good collaborators and how do you maintain those kind of relationships over the long term?

Sarah [12:00]: Certainly in relation to this collaboration with Lauren, it started as a curiosity. It started as conversation, shared conversations. It started as us participating in another artist’s video piece around contemporary Black art. Now what does it mean to be in space, in place? One of the things that is so significant for the kinds of collaboration that I’m able to be a part of is first beginning from a place of curiosity and shared interest, where the seedling of working together occurs. Oftentimes these discussions become projects and ideas that take shape years down the line.

But also collaboration isn’t necessarily a long-term project. There are short-term ways that people collaborate. As an academic, one of the modes of professional production is writing and writing is often this isolated and isolating process. But communities of writing circles and feedback circles are a kind of collaboration because they start with a curiosity that turns into streams of trust to develop the best work possible.

[13:14] In terms of longer collaboration, I think of it as still starting from that place of curiosity and interest, but moving into the direction of trust where it is probably inevitable that some element of failure is going to happen. But then figuring out ways to not just anticipate but negotiate the challenge of creating something that might not be what you thought it was going to be emerges.

In terms of the practical function, working with Lauren is probably the most recent collaborative project for me. We’re both busy people. We don’t live in the same location. Holding each other accountable then becomes a way that we’re able to collaborate.

Here’s the other piece: I’ve been invited to visualize something that in many ways is personal to this other artist. It is very much connected to her family story, but it is also something that is a a story with commonality if you are someone from the United States and are African American and have to contend with the narrative of the United States as a space itself. So collaboration really then becomes a relationship-building activity. These are things that are very much connected to the kind of other kinds of relationships that I have in my life: being curious about people, building trust, recognizing that failure and betrayal is possible, and continuing to return to that.

Cathy [14:59]: I think it’s really interesting to see how different people approach collaboration depending on the individual projects that they’re working on or the mediums that they’re working in, both in terms of their scholarship or their creative work but also when teaching. Those lessons of collaboration that you’ve learned as an artist in your creative work, do you find that they lend themselves to the work that you do in the classroom? Or perhaps are there other lessons that you’ve garnered from your artistic work that you find yourself putting to work when you’re working with students?

Sarah [15:34]: Oh, absolutely. You know, student work and teaching work is just another environment, another environmental space, where collaboration has to happen. I certainly don’t see my pedagogical interests, my research, or my studio practice as oppositional. On the best day, I am approaching it as a kind of synergistic fueling of each other.

Some of the ways that I see modes of collaboration in my studio practice informing my teaching are around the kinds of assessments that I give. From the beginning, I actually like to do group projects. Students are very vocal about what they don’t like and what they do like. But one of the reasons why I like doing group projects is students are forced to engage beyond the individual. They have to approach a shared learning goal with other people that they might not necessarily do so otherwise. That is a process in itself, even though it is fraught and complicated. It becomes this learning microcosm and learning environment where students can be accountable to others in the classroom environment.

Another element in terms of collaboration is that in an ideal teaching environment, it’s not just about the professor, the teacher, imbuing knowledge to a group of folks. This is well sought after territory. Paolo Freire has written about this, bell hooks talks about teaching to transgress and radical learning environments, and contemporary ideas of community accountability and activism. I think the classroom can become a way to put those practices in play.

Cathy [17:37]: I’d love to go back a little bit and talk about the kind of materials that you use in your work. It struck me what you were saying, how a lot of your stuff focuses on the relationship between opacity and transparency, murkiness, and memory. These complex processes structure our daily lives, but they’re also very difficult to write about and often very difficult to visualize. So I know you use a lot of very tactical materials, what you call barrier materials—things like netting, fabrics, mesh, these semi-transparent but very touch-based materials, to play with those kinds of boundaries. What draws you to barrier materials to explore these kinds of questions of memory, of history, of opacity?

Sarah [18:27]: One of the ways that I like to start responding to this question is through an anecdote in terms of how I arrived at bird netting, which is the core barrier material I use. I’ve been working with these kinds of materials for the last eight years. Part of this emerged because I was collaborating with an up-and-coming fashion designer and we were trying to think about wearable sculpture—this relationship between the body and environment in space. At the time I lived in a high rise in Toronto that had a pigeon problem. My neighbors would use bird netting, the stuff that you can get from a Home Depot. It’s a human-made, plastic material to obstruct access to balconies. What’s interesting about the material is that it usually comes in black or green or clear, but when light hits it, it goes completely transparent. So there is this quite literal characteristic of bird netting that is about functioning as a very visible kind of barrier.

[19:24] Over the course of the last eight years, I’ve shifted from using the bird netting as a structural material for me to weave strips of photograph into to actually photographing the bird netting, to manipulating the bird netting by creating holes in it and sewing it up, mending it up to projecting light on it. My most recent works, which are installation-based, actually move through four spaces of opacity and transparency. One, it begins with the photograph. Oftentimes it’s the photograph of these kinds of mesh and netting, these tactile materials. Then I create three-dimensional objects, many of which I hang from the ceiling or hang from the wall.

[20:39] Then I project light on to those objects and often that light is circular photographs. Finally, I invite viewers to engage with it, whether they touch it or they walk around it, so their silhouettes then become a part of the screen with which I’ve projected imagery on. So it’s constantly this deconstruction and reconstruction of the image or the deconstruction and reconstruction of a way of knowing that that literally implicates people into the material.

[21:38] The other thing that I would say is my interest in opacity and transparency is one that is exploring a longer genealogy of work. My use of bafflement and as a poetics is directly connected to Caribbean scholar Édouard Glissant’s ideas around a poetics of relation and his investment in thinking about the poetic as both form and content. He’s been invaluable for thinking about visual reality in really interesting ways that connect very explicitly to belonging, belonging outside of the nation, ways of constructing memory, and ways of encountering history.

Cathy: In addition to the project that you’re working on with Lauren and your book project, do you have any other future projects coming out that folks should be keeping an eye on?

Sarah: Yes, I’m actually working on two visual projects that are connected to each other. The first is a series of objects around the idea of amends. I had the opportunity to do an installation at the Arlington Art Center earlier this year with the first iteration. That project is looking at the question of what does it mean to mend or amend or change something to make it just and right? I’m looking at a number of texts, including the [US] Constitution and the role of amendments, specifically the Thirteenth through the Fifteenth Amendments that expand the breadth of subjects that are included as citizens, to the contemporary moment to ideas of the “new Black,” which often functions as a colloquial term for what’s in vogue. I examine, what does it mean to actually repair or amend something and does mending something actually fix it or change it or make it just?

[23:22] One of the ways that I’ve connected to this concept has been to think about the place that I grew up in. I had the opportunity to do an artist residency in Columbia, Maryland, where I grew up. For those who don’t know, Columbia is often touted as one of the great American cities and projects of development that sought to respond to urban sprawl but also respond to integrating populations of people based on class and race.

James Rouse, who was the designer of it, developed this village-like space in the early 1960s to address some of those concerns. I’ve been working on producing some work that thinks about the challenge of designing a location that has these big goals of integrating people and the stakes of that. I didn’t move to Columbia until the late 1980s/early 1990s, so this aftermath was something that I kind of inherited but with great ambivalence and great tension.

Many of the ways that people know Columbia are through the Columbia Mall, which is a large, expansive, sprawling capitalist mall that with high-end spaces while the broader county is where many African American folks have lived. My parents actually moved out of Columbia because it was becoming less and less affordable.

I think that these two projects in many ways circle back to core interests of mine and that is thinking about questions of equity, how it takes shape in aesthetic form, and what that has to do with the kinds of structural questions that emerge. So those are two of the projects that I’m working on.

Cathy [25:12]: This brings me to my absolute favorite question I get to talk to folks about, which really gets at the heart of that big why behind all of the projects that you’re doing. That’s the version of a better world that you’re working towards when you teach your students, when you create your art, when you collaborate with folks, when you write your scholarship. So I will ask you this giant question that I think is also a fun question to explore and one we don’t get many opportunities to talk about. What kind of world do you want?

Sarah [25:43]: Such a great question. And I knew it was coming. I want a world that is capacious enough to imagine a range of lives and experiences and that listens to those that are often framed as the margin. I think that functions on a lot of different levels. For the kind of contemporary moment we’re in this, we’re in this space of inclusion and diversity, certainly on institutional levels. [I want[ those projects of inclusion and diversity to actually focus on structural change rather than rhetorics of inclusion and there be investments in building relationships with people.

Cathy [26:25]: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Sarah: Thank you so much, Cathy.

Cathy [26:37]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]