“There Are Black People in the Future”: An Interview with Artist Alisha B. Wormsley

This article was originally published, on September 23, 2019, by The North Star.
I think I make art because it’s what I’ve always done. It’s how I communicate my dreams. It’s how I stay alive, or rather it’s how I live ...

Keisha N. Blain (KNB): What made you decide to become an artist? What would you say is your role as an artist in today’s society?

 

Alisha B. Wormsley (ABW): I’m still deciding. The role is up to the artist. Just like most things, there are people doing the same profession for all kinds of reasons. And I think there is room for all those reasons. I think I make art because it’s what I’ve always done. It’s how I communicate my dreams. It’s how I stay alive, or rather it’s how I live.

 

KNB: You have previously indicated that Florence Oyeke has inspired your work as an artist. Can you tell us more about how Oyeke and other Afrofuturist writers have inspired you?

 

ABW: Florence actually wrote about my work. I learned a lot about Afrofuturism from her writing. Ingrid Lafleur first introduced me to the term—”Afrofuturism”—and then I read that Mark Dery coined the term after talking to Greg Tate and Kodwo Eshun. Years later I was on a panel in Montreal with Ytasha Womack, and she had just finished a book about Afrofuturism, and she cited my work! That was when I realized my work was actually Afrofuturist. Okeye’s article that talked about how my work focused heavily on Kodwo Eshun—whose work More Brilliant Than the Sun—is amazing.

I think I am most inspired by two writers: Greg Tate and Arthur Jafa. I have followed Greg Tate’s writing and work on Afrofuturism. I also know him personally and he’s shared a lot of resources. Jafa’s book My Black Death was really influential to my thinking about art, science fiction, and the Black body. I actually just used that text in my class about marginalized narratives in film.

 

KNB: Your project “There Are Black People in the Future” has gained national attention over the past few years. What inspired you to develop this project, and what are your thoughts about its reception?

 

ABW: I first developed “There Are Black People in the Future” in 2012. I had just moved back to Pittsburgh from New York for residency with the Andy Warhol Museum, and I had a studio. They put me at Westinghouse Academy, which is the middle school and high school in Homewood. I had a classroom there that was like my studio, and kids could come in, and teachers brought their classes to my class to do workshops. I had approximately 20 regular students that I saw every week making projects.

At the time I was making these kind of intense, short experimental sci-fi films, and I was making them in Homewood, actually. And so I got my students to make some, and we would walk around Homewood looking for locations. And the kids would go, “Oh, this is the perfect place for a zombie film, because it looks like an apocalypse.” Or, “this is perfect for my end-of-the-world film.” And I thought, “You know, that’s not awesome, because this is where people live. This is where you live.”

So we started really breaking that down. Like, why does this neighborhood look like this, and why don’t other neighborhoods look like this? And what’s the history of this neighborhood? And how could there be so many amazing people, on the wall of fame, and this neighborhood is here? And what about other Black neighborhoods in America, and what are the similarities? And so we just started really going in, and the kids started making documentary films about it and all kinds of cool stuff.

It’s all connected—and it’s connected that there are these murders and the prison industrial complex and all these things that I’m talking about with these kids. And we’re about to make these films to focus on—like we did an alien abduction film that was about gentrification.

I was ranting about all of this with my partner, and I just said, “You know what? There are Black people in the future.” And he was like, “That’s a really good sentence.” And I agreed, so I just started writing it in my sketchbooks and all over the place and kind of tagging it everywhere. And then I started making work, and then I started thinking about Homewood.

And you can’t have a future if there’s no past. So I just started collecting these objects, and people started giving me objects. And I would just stamp “There Are Black People in the Future” on them and encase them in resin, so that they could be these artifacts that would last of this ancient civilization, “Homewood,” where Black people lived. And Black people in the future could look at that and reflect on this. And so this has taken on so many different forms: objects, sculptural pieces, installation, films, and billboards.

“There Are Black People in the Future” Billboard. Courtesy of Alisha Wormsley

KNB: Your project “The People Are the Light” includes—according to your website—“public art, social practice, performance, installation, film, and publication.” Tell us more about this project and what you hope people will take away from it. Why is it so important for you to work across various mediums?

 

ABW: That project initially came together because the Carnegie Museum has a program called the Hillman Photography Initiative, and I was selected to be one of their artists, to create some sort of project about light and one that would connect a neighborhood in Pittsburgh to the museum. I chose to focus on Homewood, Pittsburgh, because that is where I’ve been doing work since I came back, and I lived there as a kid.

There were four artists selected. Each artist received a topic, and mine was light and social justice. I thought, “What can I do in Homewood?” “How can I use this money that they’re going to give me for this project and do the best thing I can do in Homewood?” “How can I support Homewood in the best way that’s connected to my work?”

I decided to do a big, 30-day series of workshops or installations. And I asked two men to do the art installations, and I selected 10 women who are already connected to Homewood. I wanted these women to feel safe in the spaces that they were in.

I asked two artists—Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson, from Pittsburgh, and Robert Hodge, from Houston—to build art installations, and then that’s where the workshops were held. The whole project represented the past, present, and future all happening simultaneously. The women did workshops on various topics, including self-care, the Black Maker Movement, writing, and singing. Several Black women in Pittsburgh, including Yona Harvey and Anqwenique Wingfield, participated in the project. Felicia Savage Friedman did a yoga meditation. Dina “Free” Blackwell did a women’s maturation workshop. They were all really beautiful projects, including fashion shows, talks, podcasts, and presentations.

I documented the whole thing, and then I worked with the women to film them in different places around Homewood. I also was lucky enough to get funding to make a book. I really wanted to write the book, because I wanted there to be this physical archive that was in the Homewood library.

 

KNB: What are you most proud of as an artist? If you had to identify one moment in your career, or even one response to your art, that has stood out to you, what would that be (and why)?

 

ABW: I’m proud of myself for a lot of things. I was really proud of “The People Are the Light,” but I think it’s because both of my grandmothers passed away, [one] at the beginning of that project and [one at] the end of the project. So I felt like their spirits were carrying me through that entire process. And I did it, and I finished it, even though I was in the process of mourning.

I’m really proud of how I moved forward with the billboard being taken down in East Liberty, because that made me feel very vulnerable—that someone would just take down my work, and then I had to deal with the media attention and the project going viral. People I didn’t know were posting my name on social media. Even though I guess that’s supposed to be a good thing, it made me feel so vulnerable.

And then at the community meeting that followed, so many people—not only Black people—said when that sign was removed it felt as though they were removed from East Liberty. So I worked to keep that phrase—“There are Black people in the Future”—all over that neighborhood, and started a grant project where we’re getting funding to give other artists and activists grants to work through that project. That makes me feel very proud. Just being able to connect all the things I really care about in one career, in one path, is not easy. And I’ve managed to do that, and I’m really proud of that.

I’m also proud of bringing my son into this world. That’s what I’m most proud of. I’m actually most proud of bringing my son into this world and being his mother.

KNB: What new projects are you currently working on? What issues do you plan to address?

 

ABW: I’m working on a project about the Black Witch Movement in America, or the resurgence of Black women claiming the term “witch,” which is very dangerous to claim. The majority of Black culture embraces Christianity, and Christianity has deemed “witches” demonic, even though there is nothing about Satan in witchcraft.

Witchcraft is really just the way that women connect to the earth and have this power to bring life into the world, to help other women bring life into the world, to heal people, to feed people, to feed lots of people with very little food—that is magic. To take care of everybody around them—that is magic. To work multiple jobs and take care of multiple people, to raise not just their own children, but other people’s children—that’s magic. All those things are magic. Black women are magic.

So I’m really interested in this topic—especially in these terms like “hood-witch” or “trap-witch.” I’m really interested in terms, in this whole movement, this power, this decision to reclaim power that has been taken away from us and demonized—and demonized but then used for white supremacy, which is a really good trick. So that’s what I’m working on. icon

Featured image: Alisha Wormsley. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Foundation