MOVING PEOPLE: Makeda Thomas on Losing Her Archives, Making Mas, and Mothering as an Artist during a Pandemic
Makeda Thomas is an artistic director, dancer and choreographer who has emerged as a leading voice in dance performance, education and artistic curation on three continents. Her work has been presented throughout North America, Africa and South America. In 2005, Graca Machel, Former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique, was the Honorary Patron of her internationally acclaimed work, A Sense of Place, which was recognized by a commission from 651 ARTS. Her 2008 solo, evening-length work, FreshWater, was embedded in MIT’s Black Matters: Introduction to Black Studies and toured throughout the U.S., Mexico, Zimbabwe, and Trinidad. Thomas has served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. Department of State and is the director of the Dance & Performance Institute. As a dancer, she has performed internationally in the companies of Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence, Urban Bush Women and Rennie Harris’s Puremovement. She holds an MFA in Dance from Hollins University and continues to create and perform internationally, splitting her time between New York City and Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Cover photo: Djassi da Costa Johnson
Left portrait: David McDuffie
Right portrait: Whitney Browne
First, are you healthy and safe?
Give thanks for starting here. I am healthy and safe, as are the members of my family.
What has been the most unusual or surprising aspect of #shelteringinplace for you?
Just before #shelterinplace, I’d flown between the U.S. and the Caribbean twice in 4 days. During Carnival. My brother joked that I “take planes like Ubers.”
Embrace this paradox: I was also convinced that my productivity level was somehow diminished — by being a mothering artist, by the recent loss of my archives . . . When all stopped; after I’d had a moment to get over the initial flurry of the activity that COVID set in motion — I realized how much I’d accomplished and became more in love with dance. Which not surprising. What is surprising, is that I haven’t led or taken a single dance workshop online.
This isn’t the first time your spirit has been tested. In 2018 your home and all of your non-digital artistic archive were destroyed in a fire. That must have been devastating, YET you continued to make artwork and be there for your family. This question has 3 parts. a. What did you lose in that fire? b. What did you gain from the experience of that loss c. What gave you the strength to go on?
“Archive — simultaneously a thing, a place, and an action; that which is concerned with memory; a subject that I’ve explored as an artist for 20 years. So imagine, when the physical memories of that work in memory is lost. Exactly one year ago, my home in Brooklyn, New York was destroyed in a house fire. With it, burned the historical documents for the project I was developing and the archives of my career in dance: photographs, journals, choreographic notes, letters, original costumes, research materials, and audio-visual matter. And while the wiping out of the entire archive was minimized by having some of those archives separated between the cities I live in — Port of Spain and New York, I felt a sense of erasure, invisibilization, the loss of years of composition of those analogue and digital archives (having lost some context). I felt more vulnerable — for “my story” to be miscommunicated, misconstrued, forgotten. Archiving is a sequence of movements or choreographies: creating, performing, recording, placing in an archive, storing, taking out of an archive, sharing, and often re-archiving. Where did all that movement go?”
— “Fantastic Bodies: On Archival Performativities”
More intimately — and these items are intentionally named — I mourned the loss of those “portals of memory”: a VHS tape given to me by Eleo Pomare with performances of “Hushed Voices” and 2 other works. I only remember “Hushed Voices” because I’d used that part of the video when writing “Legacy & Laterals: A Rhizomatic Study of the Black Arts Movement” in 2008. I remember that one of the questions asked following its presentation was, where had I gotten access to the video? I was like, “Eleo gave it to me.” (I promptly sorted myself out to suggest the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, a repository for many of his videos.) I mourned the loss of a collection of Black Baby Dolls, gifted to Urban Bush Women by Sarita Allen during a 2002-3 tour of “Hair Stories”; a pin with a loving handwritten note from the comedienne, Kabibi Dillon, who passed in 2011. I mourned the loss of a hard drive with a video of my son being born. Research materials from years of work in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. At one point during our two year struggle of dealing with the insurance company, contractors, and having a close knit family fall apart while rebuilding a house, I joked that my brain wasn’t allowing me to truly remember everything lost. Survival strategy. Joke, but serious ting.
The connection to food, history and stories in "Eat Little and Live Long" hits me close to home. Food is how I bring back my ancestors and introduce or re-introduce them to my children. What is your favorite comfort food and do you have a particular memory of cooking with someone in your family that stands out to you at this time?
“Eat Little and Live Long” is one of the works the fire gave me the courage to make. That project was in my head for years.
It is a new archive; a gathering that merges food, dance, and storytelling; an opportunity to engage with artists and supporters of my work; a way to share and to practice; to make good on the ancestral knowledge to transform stories of loss into tales of togetherness.
I can easily say that Pelau — a traditional rice dish with browned pigeon peas, vegetables, and cooked in coconut milk — is my favorite comfort food. Pelau was on the menu for the first iteration of “Eat Little and Live Long” hosted by the Delaware Art Museum in August 2019; there’s a recipe from my Aunty Girly’s Fish Pelau in my Master’s thesis called, “How to Take Night and Make Day.” My aunt — who was really more like a grandmother — made pelau every Carnival Sunday that would be eaten at Jouvay morning’s end in the minutes between arriving to her house in Port of Spain and falling into a deep, drunken sleep. We’d only awake later that day to eat more pelau. When the Powers of the Pelau had done their “wuk,” we’d bathe and head back into the Carnival until Ash Wednesday. Pelau never tastes as good as it does on Jouvay morning. That is the secret ingredient.
In terms of ancestors, familial or artistic or both, who do you think of or talk to now, and what do they, or might say to you about this crazy global pandemic we’re experiencing?
I’m thinking of and talking to Tony Hall now. Tony Hall — the late, great Trinidadian playwright, mentor, colleague, friend — who joined the ancestors last month. I’m thinking of the aforementioned Aunty Girly, whose old kitchen stool I recently covered in the pages of Frida Kahlo’s diary. Kahlo has, perhaps, the most famous artist kitchen in the world. It’s now obvious to me why, in this global pandemic, I’ve been spending time with Frida. She spend a lot of her time in her home. These ancestors of mine — artistic and familial — they must be served, as they served us. I honor their realness, originality, generosity, humility, and brilliance; their roles and investment in my life. And it makes me feel safe. I know they have me.
Do you have a daily life/artistic practice, and how has it changed due to our current Covid-19 situation?
#iArt #iMother is a double hashtag I’ve been using for years that is most appropriate. Whatever schedule I sort of had was shot to shit with COVID. What remains is that I Art. And that I Mother.
Are your children involved in your artistic work? If so, how? If not, what are their interests? Do they like to travel back and forth from NYC to Trinidad and Tobago?
As a dance artist, I will always begin with and return to the body. And to movement. My work as dance artist, filmmaker, scholar, writer, educator, and curator is marked by Radical Interdisciplinarity; a paradigm of hybridity and reflective synergy; of engaging multiple artistic disciplines in multiple geographic and cultural spaces. Each is constituting the other while being constituted — it is a space of radical imagining. So it’s easy to imagine it includes my mothering and these people that came out of my body.
I have a page on my site with photographs of me leading workshops, giving lectures, getting ready backstage at the theatre, and playing mas with my children. One of my favorite images, not included on that page, is of me stroking the hair of my son, who is asleep in the lap of Emerante de Pradines at Haiti’s famous Hotel Oloffson.
On the other side of that photo: the band RAM is onstage, New Waves! is devouring Haitian food and rum and dancing. If you look closely, at the lower right corner of the photo, is the arm of a white American woman who was . . . doing her, ha! But the gems Mama dropped that night . . .
My children are growing up surrounded by artists and intellectuals, who’ve always supported their space. At a recent performance, my daughter was given the mic and delivered a 3-minute speech filled with baby talk (and some recognizable English words) to a packed audience who listened intently and then applauded. For my children, this is life. Traveling back and forth between NYC and Port of Spain is life.
a. Every year you are highly involved in Trinidad’s Carnival and the Caribbean Carnival in NYC on Labor Day. For you this is not simply a time to “jump up” or party. What does the phrase “making Mas” mean to you? This year you worked with visual artist Brianna McCarthy to present “Spirit Dolls.” Tell me about that collaboration and the spirits and presences you created.
a. “Making Mas” is a form of personal and community development. To make mas is to dig up inside yourself, cull those ugly parts of oneself, revel in them, make it beautiful, and finally, to revel in it all again. Where some traditionalists see mas a performance of past, for me it’s about performing future. An example of this is my Mas project, Belmont Baby Dolls (which harkens back to your last question about my children’s involvement in my artistic work — it was totally inspired by my daughter). The project situates the Baby Doll character in its historical context.
Whether dealing with mothers left with the weight of family responsibilities, the exploitation of vulnerable women by white men, the abdication of the role of a victimized and exploited for an assertive empowered woman; with queer performativities or healing modalities in Carnival — Belmont Baby Dolls is interested in, as Eintou Springer said of her script, Baby Doll Meets Midnight Robber, “the language of the times, linking tradition with modernity.” Indeed, Belmont Baby Dolls disrupt the idea that the limits of performance of this Mas are already known.”
To make mas is to make a ritual; to extend a liminal space into a season, a life.
b. This year was my second time working with Brianna McCarthy on a mas project. We collaborated on “Whitewash,” the first band I presented for the West Indian Day American Day Carnival on Labor Day in 2017. (The band won third place that year — a total surprise for a little mini band put together in Belmont.)
When I founded Belmont Baby Dolls in 2019, with its focus on “full bodied truths, structured by our lived experiences as black girls and women,” I knew I’d work with Brianna again. Brianna’s work — a collection of dolls included — creates spaces that situate black female bodies in beauty, power, and in freedom. I contacted Brianna in November 2019 about collaborating on a mas project based on her dolls: “Spirit Dolls” sets its foundation on the traditional elements of the Baby Doll Mas: Baby Doll Dress. Bloomers/Pettipant/Frilly Panty, Bonnet (covered face)/Tiny Top Hat/Big Bow, Parasol/Stick/Weapon in Caribbean homes — florals and cotton prints.
In this way, we are interested in a “Caribbean” Doll, with all those respective cultural influences, and moving towards something that is truly unique; self-defined. And while the aesthetic is strong, this mas is less about what a Baby Doll looks like, and more about what Baby Doll mas can do.
Spirit dolls act as vessels for beings of powerful spirits — Divine-beings, a spirit-of-divination, spirits of the dead, familiar-spirits, and even spiritual entities which have never had an earthly incarnation. Spirit dolls hold intention — for reasons that can include healing, honoring ancestors, divine connection, and expressing love. These dolls are often found on altars, as objects of devotion — petitioned with offerings like water, candy, cigarettes, coffee, etc. — to invoke their power in the life of the individual. The making of the Spirit Doll is a deeply personal ritual to bring to form a part of the self that is emerging from the unconscious. Carnival is the performance ritual to invoke the spirit of the Doll; to open a path to the impossible.”
Belmont Baby Dolls 2020; photographer, Abigail Hadeed
Through Carnival 2020, the performers of “Spirit Dolls” - Arnaldo James, Jade Drakes, Kwayera Cunningham Archer (joining us from Jamaica), Arielle John, Angelique Nixon, Shay Alexander, Lyndon Gill, Cecile Pemberton and her daughter, Eva who joined me and my own daughter, Nyah Love, Mari Pitkänen (who joined us from Finland), Isabel Dennis, Jamie Philbert and Patriann Edwards, who joined us for performances for “The Old Yard” at the University of the West Indies, Centre for Creative & Festival Arts and the Band Launch at Granderson Lab, respectively — gave offerings for:
#SpiritOfFreedom #SpiritOfRevolution #SpiritOfLove #SpiritOfTenderness #SpiritOfProtection #SpiritOfTheRainbows #SpiritOfTwoWaters #WaterSpirit #SpiritOfTransformation #SpiritOfHealing #SpiritOfKalinda
Belmont Baby Dolls 2020; photographer, Abigail Hadeed
You founded the Dance and Performance Institute based in Trinidad and Tobago and the New Waves Summer Program there. How did you get the brilliant idea to start this endeavor? What has been the most pleasing aspect of it for you? And, what will New Waves be waving this unusual summer of 2020?
I began splitting my time between New York and Port of Spain in 2007. After 3 years, I developed The Dance and Performance Institute as a way to build connections between all the dance artists, ideas, and spaces I’d encountered. The first artist-in-residence arrived at my home in Port of Spain when I was six months pregnant with my first child; my witness. Forward to today, The Dance and Performance Institute has engaged over 800 artists from around the world: the founding Artist-in-Residence Program has hosted over 30 international artists and scholars; the annual New Waves! gathering in Trinidad & Tobago (in 2014, the program travelled to Haiti); a Carnival Performance Studies program that grew into New Waves! Mas - which produced for Trinidad Carnival (2019) and Brooklyn’s West Indian American Day Carnival (2017, 2018); and a Scholarship Program offering dance studies to local artists in Trinidad & Tobago, and for Caribbean artists in the diaspora to study dance with leading institutions, artists and scholars in NYC. In 2018, “Making Stage: Dance Curation in Trinidad & Tobago” was published in “Curating Live Arts: Critical Perspectives, Essays, and Conversations on Theory and Practice”, documenting the New Waves! Commission Project.
I am most proud of _____________.
It really depends on the day.
I question _____________.
Too much, probably. I’m “hardened” — like diamonds.
I fear ______________.
Too much, probably. I’m too soft.
I hope my children always value __________.
Themselves. And Art. Which is the same.
If I could curate a dream weekend of performance (with anyone dead or alive) I would definitely put these artists on the program because . . .
This is already happening, in a way. The upcoming New Waves! program for the 10th Anniversary of the Institute includes Fana Fraser, Catherine Denecy, Sheena Rose, Shamar Watt, Michelle Gibson, Jean Sebastian Duvilaire, Akuzuru, Ras Mikey C, Ananya Chatterjea and Chris Walker. These artists of the Caribbean and its diasporas are who I am most excited about.
What keeps your spirit up right now?
My children. And gardening. Turns out “Eat Little and Live Long” also applies to my new garden. A little bit of this, a little bit of that: sunflowers, heirloom beefsteak tomato, Roma tomato, lettuce, arugula, watercress, carrot, onion, mint, scotch bonnet, red cayenne, basil, Spanish, German, and Jamaican thymes (although which is which is debatable), healing plants of aloe, wonder of the world, and cannabis, micro greens (broccoli, red lettuce, mache lettuce, arugula), garlic, potato, okra, beetroot, and seedlings for trees of moringa, lemon, sour sop, and sapodilla. (These are gifts/for trading/for the future.)
What is the first thing you would like to do when we are not required to #shelterinplace?
Go to the beach.
When did you know that dance was the direction you had to pursue in life?
When I saw Urban Bush Women’s Shelter performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre on the Phil Donahue Show. I was 15.
The most expressive part of the body is __________ because __________.
Whichever needs to be the most expressive in the appropriate moment. Timing an’ ting. But if I had to pick just one, I’d say the spine. It allows us to move. And feel.
What is/are your favorite dance move/moves and why?
It really depends on the moment. Context an’ ting.
I am really looking forward to _____________.
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