Jan 27, 2017

Six Seeds for Southwest : An interview with artist Aisha Cousins

by: Sarah Schultz, Guest Blogger

As part of Southwest Roots, Mural Arts and Bartram’s Garden invited Brooklyn-based artist Aisha Cousin to create a project with the residents of Southwest Philadelphia.  After 4 months of meetings with the community, Cousins created “Six Seeds for Southwest: A Zero Waste Art Commission,” a series of six performance art scores inspired and informed by the past and present history of Bartram’s Garden and its surrounding neighborhood. Southwest Roots curator Sarah Schultz interviews Aisha about her project and the time she spent in Philadelphia.

Sarah:  Can you tell us about the project you created for Southwest Roots?

Aisha:  I visited Southwest Philadelphia for several months during the late spring of 2016 to come up with a set of performance art scores–do-it-yourself instructions for live art projects–called Six Seeds for Southwest.  There are six scores in the series, and some are new, while others are site-specific proposals of pre-existing scores.  During the summer, I worked with people in the neighborhood to facilitate a proto-type of the one score that seemed like the best fit for both the residents and Bartram’s Garden. The one we wound up doing is called Briar Roses, which is inspired by one of my favorite Brer Rabbit stories.

Sarah:  Why did you reference the story of Brer Rabbit?

Aisha:  I’ve been doing work that references Brer Rabbit for about 5 years now. Briar Roses is from a series I composed in 2014 to help black Brooklynites process and respond to gentrification. There are 3 scores in the series:  Briar Roses, Civilized People, and Real Estate for Birds. They were initially designed to gather ideas for the plot of a stage performance called Brer Rabbit the Opera. All 3 scores were meant to try to answer this question:

How would a black trickster like Brer Rabbit respond to gentrification?

Briar Roses is inspired by the story of Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch. In the story, Brer Rabbit escapes death by tricking his nemesis Brer Fox into throwing him into a patch of briars or thorny vines.  Brer Fox thinks the thorns will kill the rabbit… but when he lands in the briar patch, Brer Rabbit doesn’t die. Instead, he hops up and laughs, “You fool, I was born and raised here!” Brer Fox tries to reach into the briar patch to grab him, but can’t make it past the thorns, so Brer Rabbit gets away.

Briar Roses is inspired by Brer Rabbit’s line about how the briar patch created a safe space for him and his family to grow.

Sarah:  Briar Roses invited people to make planters to hold a thorny plant that they would then continue to tend.  How do the plant and the planter sculpture act as a catalyst for conversation?   How did you envision people using them?

Aisha:  To perform Briar Roses, you use a combination of live thorny plants and found objects to create a cryptic looking sculpture. The sculpture expresses your personal example of how a local “thorn” has created a safe space for a neighborhood “rose” or thing you love to grow. You then take the sculpture home and place it in a semi-public area such as a porch or front yard.   From then on, as people start to make comments about the unusual appearance of your sculpture, like, “What’s that funny looking thing on your porch?”,  you use a set of short personalized questions created during the sculpture workshop to start conversations with your neighbors.  Ideally and over time, the neighborhood would talk more organically about how removing too many of the area’s metaphorical “thorns” (what is perceived as negative) can make its “roses”  (what is positive) vulnerable.

Since our August workshop, I’ve been thinking about how the participants now have this weekly interaction with their sculpture as they care for the plant. That’s actually becoming one of my favorite aspects of the project. It creates the kind of repetition needed to really think through how you feel about certain issues, particularly gentrification, but it’s a subtle way of keeping the question on people’s minds.

Sarah:  What was it about the Southwest Neighborhood and Bartram’s Garden that made you choose this score and workshop?

Aisha:  When I listened to the way that black people I was meeting inside and outside the neighborhood described Southwest Philadelphia, it seemed like the neighborhood was often stereotyped in negative ways by outsiders. There was also a general concern that I kept seeing and hearing about the way demographic changes and rising housing costs were creeping closer and closer. Later, when I spoke with the Land Manager at Bartram’s Garden to assess the feasibility of a few scores, he got particularly excited about Briar Roses and told me how the Garden’s thorny plants hold a special place in his heart because visitors often overlook them in favor of the flowery ones.  A lot of neighbors in the area have plants in front of their houses, so it seemed like the actions required to do Briar Roses were something everybody could easily integrate into things they were already doing.  All those experiences told me Briar Roses would be tap into the interests of everyone involved in some way or another.

Sarah:  What role do you think art plays in social change?

Aisha:  It varies from work to work, but in terms of performance art, I believe it has the power to create change because it asks people to incorporate new actions into their lives. And actions are the building blocks for the daily habits and traditions that shape or re-shape culture.

Brooklyn-based artist Aisha Cousins is known for her performance art scores or as she likes to call them “recipes for beautiful moments.”  Her scores engage black audiences in exploring their contrasting histories and aesthetics (ideas of beauty), while processing their shared sociological shifts (changes in society). Her work has been performed independently on the streets of historically black neighborhoods from BedStuy to Brixton, as well as with institutions such as Weeksville Heritage Center, Project Row Houses, the Museum Of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, The Laundromat Project, and MoMA PS1.   Click here for more about Aisha Cousin’s work.

Sarah Schultz is an independent curator and public engagement consultant whose work focuses on developing collaborative projects between artists and the public She was previously the Director of Education and Curator of Public Practice at the Walker Art Center where she led Open Field, an experimental platform for social interaction, collective action, and socially-engaged art. In addition to working on Southwest Roots, she spends time on her own research project, Herbarium for the Anthropocene, to document stories about people and plants in a time of global climate change.

Last updated: Jan 30, 2017

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