Sitting in an incensed filled bungalow at 18th Street Arts Center, perfumed smoke encircling, bonding us together like sisters sharing the same blanket, I whooped, hollered, moaned, and laughed out loud with artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle. Her new body of work, The Evanesced, examines the disappearance of black women. Recent statistics show a staggering 64,000 African American women missing in the United States alone. Through ink drawings and performance, Hinkle seeks to find these women in the blues, work songs, protest music, and other historical soundscapes to contest their erasure. During our conversation, she unpacks the soundtrack that accompanies her movement piece The Evanesced: Embodied Disappearance which she performs at the California African American Museum (CAAM) on Thursday, April 27th, from 7pm to 9pm, as well as the songs that guided her hand as she brushed improvisational silhouettes that speak, shout, and say her names.
I want to start with Berta Berta. The credits said it was by Branford Marsalis so I was expecting something jazzy, but that’s not what I got.
Marsalis recorded this version of Berta Berta in 1992, but it’s a chain gang song from the early 1900’s.
And there’s a 1947 recording taped by folk musicologist Alan Lomax at Mississippi State Penitentiary.
It’s so interesting with Alan Lomax. He showed up to these prisons and started recording men who were living out life sentences. Life expectancy wasn’t very long because you were sent there to work until you died. And you became a part of the state. These men sung these songs so that they could survive or keep rhythm and keep time, not all that different from how they sung songs so they could keep rhythm and have the cotton count they needed to make that day. So it’s powerful how African Americans, enslaved or imprisoned, are able to come up with these kind of inner mechanisms to survive, even though they know these systems are not made for them to survive.
And what happens to the black women, like Berta, who wait on them to be free? I just kept thinking about all of these black women whose sons are sent there, their husbands, their uncles, cousins. There are so many Bertas throughout history.
During my performance, when this song comes on, I begin stomping backwards, the percussion of my heels hitting the floor, mimicking the sound of railroad tracks being lain, that same kind of rhythm. And I’m thinking, “Go back, forget about me.” This kind of regression. This is not a man you’re going to spend the rest of your life with because he’s incarcerated now. He doesn't belong to you. He’s a slave and you don't belong to him. And he’s like, “Don’t keep coming back here to see me because I’m already dead. You go be free ‘cause I can’t be.” This particular song is central to these black men and their story, but it’s also about the residue and how enslaving impacts everybody. It impacts the community.
I’ve seen my brother get handcuffed. Forced to walk several blocks with no shoes on, on the hot pavement, in Kentucky, in the middle of summer. I’m writing a book stemming from my brother being named Sir because my mother wanted him to have a title of respect no matter who addressed him.
So he’s forced to walk the pavement but the police must first call him Sir?
That ultimate naming gesture. Sometimes it’s the only weapon we [Berthas] have.
In Berta Berta, the men sing about Parchman Farm. The very first prison in the United States was a farm. The singer doesn’t want Berta to marry a farmer. He asks her to choose a railroad man instead. It brings to mind a quote by agricultural scholar Leah Penniman who said, “Many of our people have confused the oppression that took place on land with the land itself. There’s a lot of ancestral, almost cellular trauma that’s associated with land.” On Penniman’s family farm in New York, her team works to heal this type of trauma so black, Latinx, and indigenous people farm again.
Back to the land. I’ve been hearing a lot about people doing works like that. Michael Twitty on recovering our ancestral foods and the way we prepare things. He does this project in Georgia. They wear period clothing. They cook the food exactly how slaves would’ve cooked it over open hearth fires. So it’s a return back to that knowledge and that information. And it’s really powerful to witness and to watch. Even with my gardening project, it’s something so ancestral and empowering about knowing and just working with the earth as a resource. And not that I’m doing this because I have to do it for somebody else. Or if I don't do this, I’m going to starve. Those conditions are very different.
I’m reading slave narratives from Kentucky and there was a passage that kept talking about how the slaves insisted on growing the crops dependent on what the moon was doing. And that’s how they got their most fruitful crops. It’s so interesting that they were paying attention to the moon. This other counterpart was like, “Just put the seeds in the ground. Either it’s a good crop or a bad crop.” But we took a lot of that cultivation all the way from Africa. In Kentucky, where I was born and raised, they would only plant certain things by the light of the moon. And I was like, ‘Ooh should I start doing that when I go out and plant in my garden?’
Knowing the land, loving the land, and working the land is in certain narratives, but the kind of overall narrative is, “We have to work the land for somebody else. And really not for us or for our nourishment or even for furthering our learning.” And there are a lot of programs and people doing projects so there can be a larger presence of black farmers. That’s absolutely amazing and it's not explored enough, especially in the art world. Nikki Pressley is from South Carolina. She’s a conceptual artist. She’s always talked about getting a plot of land and just turning that into her art project. And I was like, ‘I’ll show up during harvest time.’ That’s so bad. Now that I’m gardening myself I said, ‘Girl, I’ll come and get in that soil with you.’
Tell me about your garden. What have you grown and what have you learned by growing?
I inherited this plot. It was an absolute mess when I started. And there was stuff trying to grow but it wasn’t being tended to. There were aphids everywhere and I was like, ‘Oh my God, aphids are like colonial forces! They just suck the juices right up out of plants.’ On the very same day I inherited that plot, I learned that a transgender woman was stabbed one hundred nineteen times. Dee Whigham was a twenty-five year old nurse and she was killed in a Best Western Hotel room in St. Martin, Mississippi. When I found that out, I said, ‘I want to dedicate this plot to living and thriving.’ I planted marigolds all around the perimeter for Sandra Bland. There’s something about their color and vibrancy that reminds me of her fire and her spirit. My son had a bean plant he started in school. The teachers were like, “Here’s his seed. Nothing became of it.” I sat that thing on the windowsill, started taking care of it, and it grew so high!
Yes! I recently planted some celery, stringed onions, basil. I’m working on potatoes and some garlic. Things like that. There was a lot of Swiss chard there. Everybody loves Swiss chard because it’s so easy, but it was overgrown. Instead of flowers, I’ve been making and gifting myself bouquets of Swiss chard. A lot of my practice is about making my own tools instead of depending on or being bitter that somebody is not giving me their tools.
You made your own brushes for The Evanesced.
Yes, I have some that are as tall as me.
From trees in Florida?
From trees in Valencia, Oakland, and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. I was in residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA), which is literally in a jungle. So I would go out and have my little scissors and do tiny snips. I would always ask permission. If it didn’t feel right for me to take from a tree or palmetto or whatever, I wouldn’t.
You would ask permission of the tree?
Yes, I always do. Someone once told me they went to bite a leaf off a plant and they felt bad energy in their bodies. The plant was like, “What the fuck are you doing?” Years ago I read this book called Plant Spirit Shamanism. It talks about how plants have feelings. I love that book. And of course I’m not taking all the Spanish moss for my art work. I don't do that either. I take whatever I need and it’s a very tiny amount.
So that’s how you make the brushes. What’s your process for the drawings?
I challenged myself at ACA. I said, ‘I’ve never made one hundred of anything. I’m gonna make one hundred drawings before I leave here.’ And I did. It was so empowering. I listened to a lot of music and I danced every day. I became like a DJ with blank pages, a channel for all of these women to come out. And I would find them in these sporadic strokes.
Are you using India ink?
India ink, handmade brushes, calligraphy pens, and acrylic paint.
There’s also some white running through these drawings.
There’s this motif with the white mask, white face, or powdered face. A lot of this is my interpretation because I don’t control what I’m doing. Allison Glenn, an arts writer, asked if I’m thinking about colorism as a form of erasure when using white in the work.
When I was on fellowship in Nigeria, I learned they have one of the largest industries for skin bleaching. A woman in Nigeria asked my son's father why he hadn’t married a yellow girl. She watched him going into the market to buy things, so she wanted to know why he couldn’t marry somebody that matched his wealth through whiteness. A lot of times African Americans look to West Africa or the continent like, “I’m gonna find myself. It’s gonna be amazing. Oh Africa!” What’s interesting is that we have erased the colonial legacy. We erased the fact that at the same time that things were happening over here, they were also happening over there. And the common denominator is white supremacy.
So there’s a touch of colorism and hints of white supremacy in the drawings. There are also boobies. I see lots of boob.
Oh, yeah. Flat breasts, saggy breasts, long breasts, multiple breasts. Breasts are really huge in all of my bodies of work. Breasts can nourish. They can heal. They can repel. They can attract. They have a lot of magic in them.
Tricks Ain’t Walking No Mo’ is another track from your performance. Why’d you choose this song and how did you discover Lucille Bogan?
When I moved into my first apartment in Baltimore somebody gave me this whole CD of blues women and Lucille Bogan’s Tricks Ain’t Walking No Mo’ was on there. This was about 2006 or 2007. I was so blown away by the rawness of it, the honesty of it. The fact that this was recorded in like 1934-35 and this woman is talking about how she don't have no johns to pay her rent. I’ve always been a fan of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. I never really could understand the respectability politics that were forced upon them. That they were nasty women or even that what they’re doing is something new and just too raunchy. For this project, I found Lucille Bogan’s whole album. There’s some things on there I play for people and they are like, “Please cut that off.”
Wait, where is it? Play it.
I mean, it’s too much. She’s got four different names for her cock. Lucille Bogan takes Foxy Brown, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Kim and drops them off at daycare, but I’ll play it. This is Till The Cows Come Home…
Play Shave ‘Em Dry. What’s that one about?
You’re the only person that’s been like, “Let me hear some more.”
I like her.
Bogan is the truth and she’s cracking herself up on this track. I’m so happy I got to play that for you. That brought me so much joy.
I hear this idea of black women being hypersexualized, but I wonder if a part of it is us being allowed… of having the freedom to express our sexual desires in a way that white women weren’t afforded.
I’ve been talking to Todd Gray about this a lot in our collaboration Iggy Pop Tried to Kill Me. This idea that the white westernized body is a repressed body. Because… you know how they say, “You got a tight ass, you're such a tight ass. You need to loosen your ass up.” I study a lot of chakras and all of your spinal fluids are closed off if you don't move your hips, move your butt, move your body. It kinda kills your soul, kills your vibration. And so we knew that and we were going into the woods and dancing in the middle of the night. And doing certain rituals or even these ways of worship that were brought into the country or brought into Christianity that were about moving and releasing and hollering, allowing the Holy Ghost to come. It’s not gone come if you’re repressed and things.
So I think that black women were seen as… in the same way that white women were seen as property for white men, we were seen as sexual property. Like that’s the only thing that we were good for, reproduction and pleasure that was not our own pleasure to receive. I’ve been studying exoticism. And if I come from a culture where I have to cover every inch of my body because it’s cold and you come from a culture or geography where you have to have as little as possible on your body because it’s hot, if I go to this warmer geography and see beautiful, bountiful, free bodies that I automatically connote to sex, that’s hypersexualizing.
Western women are still forced to breastfeed their children in a way where the breast can’t be seen. In Nigeria, I saw women breastfeeding their children everywhere. They didn’t have nursing covers and all of that. It’s a part of the body. It’s a part of nature. So I think when our exposed skin got misconstrued as us being naked and available, when those kind of boundaries got blurred or our bodies started being produced on carte-de-vistes, on these postcards and distributed all throughout Europe… “Come! These women are ready for you. Look they are already showing their breasts. They are already naked.” That’s hypersexualization.
Beyond slavery or colonialism, it seems evident in music, there is a language that was spoken and that we have record of. A tradition of black women having agency over their sexual choices, from blues women to Missy Elliot or Jill Scott.
I love Erykah Badu. She has a song called Annie. Annie is one of her alter egos. And Annie ain’t got on panties. In my performance, when I bend over in certain ways, it shows my bare ass. My whole life I’ve been instructed to cover up. I’m countering this idea that a decent lady keeps her skirt down. Maybe I don't have on underwear because it’s comfortable and convenient and I’m not on my period so there’s no need.
I also really love Abbey Lincoln. She started out singing “my man beats me” songs like Sara Vaughn and Billie Holliday and then was like, “Fuck that! I’m not singing that shit anymore. I’m gonna write my own stuff.” So then we got songs like You and Me Love where she’s talking about an open sexual relationship - you and me and you too. In the music, that’s where we can be free. Not only is music a speech act, our words going out, it can also be accompanied with dancing and gestures and moving the body and hips.
I watched a video of little kids doing the dutty wine. They were so fluid in their bodies, on the ground twerking and stuff. Then there was this clash between African Americans whose comments were, “This is perverted. What are these kids doing? Where are their parents?” And Caribbean people saying, “This is a part of the culture. They’re actually in tune with their bodies. This is something to be embraced and encouraged.” Sometimes moving your body doesn’t connote riding some invisible phallus. It’s not always about that.
Linda Sharrock is on your score. She’s someone who went to art school, but grew up in the church choir, and brings this avant-garde, experimental sound to her work. I watched her on a French TV show from the 1970’s. What she’s doing with her voice is very primal, from the gut. It sounds like an orgasm to me.
It’s so unrestricted. It gives me permission to free myself in this very primal way that I don't think black women are allowed. I found Linda and Sonny Sharrock when I was living above OK Natural Foods store in Baltimore. My friend Berkley Savage worked there. He was playing it and all I heard was, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” I went up to Berkley and I said, “What is this?” He slid the CD over to me. And it’s been with me ever since.
There are at least two songs in your movement piece that highlight the sex workers point of view including Ruth Brown’s If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It. How does this relate to The Evanesced?
The Grim Sleeper, Lonnie Franklin, murdered a lot of women who were sex workers. The Grim Sleeper being the South Los Angeles serial killer.
What happened in South Central? Everybody failed these women. Everybody, everybody, everybody. The community, the police, the city. How do you fix that? How do you keep that from happening again? Certain people need to be afforded their humanity. Not only were they sex workers, there are various intersections as to why they were out in the street, but a lot of them were addicted to crack. They were addicted to drugs and so the only way to feed their habit or feed themselves or feed their children was to prostitute. Lonnie Franklin preyed upon that. He preyed upon that vulnerability in the community. And he knew that people would turn a blind eye to these women because they were “just whores” or “just crack whores.” We dehumanize each other. That’s kind of how I’m thinking about sex work and this agency. Ok, we came over here on the auction block and we had no agency to Ruth Brown singing on Broadway, “If I can’t sell it, I’m gonna sit on it.” To knowing that a lot of women in this case didn't have a choice. So in my performance I’m asking, ‘What if we can walk inside that [blues woman] empowerment? I am a sex worker, so what? It doesn’t mean that you have a right to discard me in the alley next to your house like Lonnie Franklin did. If we’re in a contractual agreement, give me my money, you get what you get. Don't kill me.’ You know what I mean? Like what does it mean to be a sex worker and to be safe? So many transgender women are murdered because they can’t get jobs in certain places. Because of discrimination, they’re forced to do their work underground, forced to sell their bodies. I’m really thinking about that heavy, heavy, heavy weight of what it means to have to sell your body to get whatever you need and still survive. When the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murderers, led by Margaret Prescod went to the police station and said, “There’s a serial killer on the loose. What are y’all doing to find them?” The police asked, "Why do you care? It’s just whores.” As if they're not human. They don't have families. They don’t have lives. They're not sick. They don’t need help. And so that’s what I’m thinking about in this piece. What do you do when people are deemed invisible or disposable? When you’re isolated and forgotten? That’s why I called this body of work The Evanesced because evanesce means to vaporize into thin air, to disappear. I had to ask myself, ‘Am I saying black women are extinct? Or by calling it something that has to do with erasure, am I essentially erasing them?’
I don't think so at all. It made me aware. It made me pay closer attention. It’s heavy stuff. And it’s important work.
Being clairvoyant, I can hear things and feel things. I remember one time I was so tired. A lot of this really haunts me, so I said, ‘I’m tired of doing this work.’ And something told me, “You don’t get to be tired. We’re dead.”
The Evanesced on view at the California African American Museum through June 25, 2017. Artist Talk with Curator Naima J. Keith, Wednesday, April 5th, 7pm-9pm. The Evanesced: Embodied Disappearance performance, Thursday, April 27th, 7pm-9pm.
Interview by Malika Ali Harding
All Drawings and Photographs © Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle
Header Image: The Evanesced #107, 2016, India Ink and Watercolor on Recycled, Acid-Free Paper, 12x9 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery.