Apr 1

Archiving Our Impact: The Power of Spoken and Written Words

by: Chad Eric Smith

Earlier this year, Mural Arts’ frequent collaborator, the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), announced that Nina “Lyrispect” Ball would be their new Director of Programming and Education. According to her official website, Nina is an “award-winning lyricist, author, educator and voiceover artist whose work empowers, challenges and inspires through the compelling marriage of multiple art forms.” She is also an activist and advocate for girls, women, people of color, and marginalized communities. Before her time with AAMP, Ball helped lead BLACK GIRLS ROCK! in Brooklyn and served in a national role with the L.A.-based company “ARRAY,” founded by Academy award nominee filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

In the spirit of April being National Poetry Month, we wanted to take a trip down memory lane to past Mural Arts projects that fused Nina’s poetic talent with mural making, which resulted in transforming public spaces and individual lives.

INTERVIEW 

I sat down with Nina to learn about these past works and discuss ways Mural Arts and the African American Museum can collaborate in the future, understanding that, as she says, “it’s important to archive our impact.” Below is an excerpt from our conversation:

How long have you been a poet, and what made you fall in love? 

I’d like to say I’ve been a poet since birth, and I discovered it as a love, a healing tool, and a natural gift around the age of 9. What made me fall in love was navigating the ability to express all these complex feelings that I have inside. I have always been a deeply passionate person in all ways. It was the impetus and the avenue through which I found a healthy balance. Also, the freedom of making my own rules, accessing my vivid imagination, and applying the real-world knowledge and perspective I acquired along my journey helped solidify my marriage to this art form.

Poetry is a form of literature or spoken word that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language − such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and meter − to evoke meanings. What’s your favorite part about the technical side of poetry? 

I love to play around with and push against form. I spend a lot of time writing what I consider to be free verse or expository prose, but I also experiment with Villanelle, Pantoum, and other traditional forms. I like the restrictions of being succinct because my free verse approach has always been to exhaust a topic in one poem and move forward. There is so much to write about. But love and attraction are recurring. There are so many iterations there. It is an endless well.

Aside from the immeasurable impact of the expansion of one’s spirit and imagination, the internal archive, we must capture in words, images, and art, who we are, what we stand for, and what we did here.

- Nina “Lyrispect” Ball

In 2012, you and artists Keir Johnston & Ernel Martinez worked on The Color of Your Voice at 2417 Ridge Avenue. What was that experience like, and what did it mean to the community? 

That project was deeply enriching, and I learned and gained so much by working with the then residents of Project H.O.M.E., which is within walking distance of where the mural was placed. I have immense respect for the approach that Keir and Ernel take to their work, and it was an honor to be in company with them. The participants were both youth and adults, and I worked with another poet, Vision, to teach a series of 30+ workshops that helped inform the written content that made it to the final iteration. I pored over and through the writings of our residents. I extracted the most impactful lines and arranged them into one cohesive piece. I always talk about how we had an adult participant who was just learning to read and write. She had such a beautiful spirit. She would dictate her poems to me, and I would write them down. It was especially important that her words made it to the wall. Every voice and perspective is represented. You do not get erased simply because you express and process differently. I value the relationships we made during that time, and it will always be a memory of a significant turning point in my work as a teaching artist.

The Color of Your Voice Painting a Healthy City Paint Day and Resource Fair, May 5, 2012. Photo by Kathryn Poole.

The Color of Your Voice dedication, October 3, 2012. Photo by Steve Weinik.

In 2020, you participated in The “Emerge” campaign, which aimed to foster inspiration and hope, acknowledging not just the impact of the intersections of COVID-19 and systemic racism in America, but the innate strength and resilience of people of color challenged by both pandemics. Why was that experience important? 

That experience was important because initially the campaign was just about COVID and overcoming it together. But we had regular planning sessions, and the nation was on fire with protests around the defense and protection of Black bodies. It was something we could not ignore. We, myself (Lyrispect), Isis tha Saviour (Mary Baxter), Freeway, and Ursula Rucker, along with the selected students for the campaign, stressed how imperative it was to include the compounded threat on BIPOC people’s lives when COVID was at its most aggressive. Mural Arts listened to the overwhelming desire to tell the full story, and “Emerge” took on a fuller and deeper life.

Have you worked on any other murals or public artworks in collaboration with Mural Arts? Please share. 

Yes. My first mural was also with Keir Johnston. I was brought on to add poetry to a mural in progress that encompasses an entire playground in South Philly. I was honored to be able to take my work off the page and onto the walls for the first time. The piece is called Manifesto 2.0.

As the Director of Programming and Education at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, what is your vision regarding community engagement for the coming months and years? Any creative ideas on how Mural Arts can be a partner? 

Our mission at the Museum is to bring diverse communities together in greater appreciation of the Black experience through the combined narrative of art, culture, and historical witness.

The museum is a place for ALL people to come together, celebrate, learn about, and appreciate Black History and Culture. My vision is to realize, animate, and underscore the heart of our mission through every aspect of our programming. No stone is left unturned. It will remain a “safe space” for people of color. But, it will expand into a hub of cultural enrichment with Black life, love, experience, future, history, reality, culture, and excellence at the center. I want to explore the intersections of Blackness, from those with shared heritage (Black and ____), as well as those who have been historically “othered.”

The African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

I will be listening to the elders, the youth, and the people who know most what this museum needs at this particular juncture in history and doing my best to make those offerings. We also have exciting original programs in the works that provide variegated hues to the country’s cultural landscape, complement our rotating exhibits, and center community care.

We will continue our “Art Break” and “Learning Through the Arts” series as well as our outdoor partnership with Franklin Square (Griot Tale Saturdays!), which has now expanded to “AAMP in the Square.” We are planning a glorious Juneteenth celebration in partnership with Wawa Welcome America this year! I am also focused on older youth, young adults, and lifetime learners. I want to bring more creative writing, music, literature, socially-conscious events, and art making to the museum so that we continue to help nurture the next generation of great thinkers and artists.

We welcome meaningful and intentional collaboration. I have a long history of working with Mural Arts, and we have even collaborated on an event earlier this year, as well as last year. I would love to dream up some unique alignment that moves the needle towards the liberation of all people.

You once told me that it’s essential for us to “archive our impact.” What do you mean by that, and why is it important? 

As the kids say, “Pics, or it didn’t happen.” (Laughs)

We have a responsibility to add to the narrative and to leave a road map for the present and future generations.

Aside from the immeasurable impact of the expansion of one’s spirit and imagination, the internal archive, we must capture in words, images, and art, who we are, what we stand for, and what we did here.

Last updated: Apr 1, 2022

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