Jawole Willa Jo Zollar & Rene Yung
In this installment of the Harmony Project News Arlene Goldbard interviews choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and multi-media artist Rene Yung about their successful collaborations with community partners.
Without a foundation of trust, partnerships can’t work. How do you establish that firm grounding for a collaboration? It takes time, they say, and openness to learning.
Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar
“Ask questions, find resource people, and learn how to enter, build, and exit community.”
Urban Bush Women is a dance company dedicated to bringing “untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance . . . from a women-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community.” In addition to their performances, they engage in extensive community-based programming, encouraging cultural activity as an integral part of community life.
Artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar described a key long-term partnership that emerged from a residency with some community-based organizations in New Orleans in the early 1990s.
They prepared for the residency by “going around and talking to people, asking who should we be talking to.” One anti-racism group, The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond kept coming up over and over again. Zollar explains, “That becomes one of the things that you start to notice.”
At a culminating debriefing for Urban Bush Women’s New Orleans residency, their People’s Institute partners said, “one of the things that we thought you did the best was how you entered the community. You didn’t come in saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and who’s gonna join us?’ or ‘We know. We’re the experts from New York.’ You came in with a respectful listening process.”
Those comments were the seed of Urban Bush Women’s “Entering, Building and Exiting Community” workshop, offered both as a freestanding course and as part of its popular annual Summer Leadership Institute, a 10-day intensive connecting dance professionals and community-based artists.
Some of the People’s Institute’s core questions have become central to Urban Bush Women’s way of working. They ask “how does internalized racial inferiority or superiority—inferiority for people of color and superiority for white people—how does it show up in your work? How does it show up in how you organize? Are you aware of it when it shows up, and how do you address it? Those questions make us go deeper and deeper. It changes our dialogue, and it changes how we think about things.”
Early in their partnership, People’s Institute leaders said that to understand their work, Urban Bush Women members should take one of their trainings. “Now,” said Zollar, “when someone wants to work with Urban Bush Women, we use that same model: ‘Well why don’t you come to our institute so you can see who we are and how we work?’ Then we’ve got a dialogue, so that you really understand what our methodology is.”
For nearly 20 years, Urban Bush Women and the People’s Institute have talked about how culture needs to be tied into any community organizing initiative. Zollar stressed the mutual benefits, “It’s one of the things that they now emphasize. And that’s not only part of the mission, but part of their commitment to work with cultural organizations. There’s been an impact both on them and on us from the work that we’re doing together.”
Urban Bush Women in “Batty Moves”
The word “batty” is Jamaican slang for “butt.” Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s piece “Batty Moves” is a great example of Zollar’s use of dance to provide a women-centered perspective. The piece is a comment on Euro-American attitudes towards black women’s bodies and sexuality.
Zollar points out that Western dance technique tends to suppress any hip movement, while African and Caribbean traditions use hip movements extensively in both sacred and secular dance.
In “Batty Moves” Zollar creates a repertoire of movements that celebrates black female sexuality in general and the butt as an erotic zone in particular. The piece reflects Zollar’s attitude that the sensuality of the female body is beautiful, not vulgar.
This 6 minute video “Batty Moves“ includes clips of the dance and comments by the dancers.
Multi-media Artist Rene Yung
“Art is a very special process to build civic engagement, but be prepared for hard work.”
Rene Yung has led a wide variety of participatory arts projects, many of them large in scale. For instance, Chinese Whispers is a site-specific community-storytelling project about contemporary folk memories of the Chinese who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad and settlements on the American frontier. Our Oakland is an integrated public art project to beautify the new East Oakland Community Library and create a new platform for community storytelling there.
She has also exhibited work in more conventional artforms and venues, but explains that collaborative work is the area that she is most interested in as an artist.
“The challenges of getting organizations to even consider art as a part of what they get involved in—that art can somehow actually be a constructive new part of their toolkit—is very hard. But once you get that trust—or at least the initial gamble, like ‘Okay, we’ll try it out,’—it is so much more powerful than the experiences I have had working within the framework of the artworld.”
“In open-ended civic engagement, the framework is about the process and the mutual goals. Art becomes a very special process to reach those goals.”
I asked Rene to situate herself on the spectrum of artists who, at one end, are invited to collaborate, and at the other, act as cultural entrepreneurs, initiating collaborations.
She’s done both, but “increasingly, I’ve been on the entrepreneurial side, because of the things I’m interested in. Like ‘Chinese Whispers’ is not something that an organization would think of, so I have to find a network or quilt of organizations for whom this will have relevance. The entrepreneurial part of it is really hard, but also really interesting.”
Forming those relationships, she stresses, involves the artist in learning and extending herself, in finding the right champions.
“You simply have to do your footwork and find out about them, because if you go there and it’s about you, there’s no reason they should be interested. Part of the footwork is to see what kind of common ground there might be that might not seem immediately apparent.”
“And capacity is constantly the biggest challenge. People could really like the idea, but they just don’t have the bandwidth to do something different unless somebody really is sparked by your idea or someone in a higher position has the vision to understand what you’re bringing to them, and to commit to that chance.”
“You have to get lucky too,” Rene said. “I had an excellent working relationship with an organization for years. They had this fabulous woman director. She retired, and there was no one there in a position of authority who wanted to bother. The exact same organization, different leaders.”
“Chinese Whispers” Reclaims History
A quarter million Chinese came to California between 1849 and the early 1880s to work on the railroads and in the mines, industries and services of the American frontier. But today there is scant record about them — they have mostly been forgotten as individuals.
“Chinese Whispers” looks at this historical amnesia through stories that have been passed down over generations at different sites, and engages communities in the retelling of their local Chinese whispers. Visit the Chinese Whispers website to see videos and learn more about the project.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out the newest phase of this project, Chinese Whispers Golden Gate.
This phase will look at San Francisco as the staging ground for a massive diaspora, inside the U.S., of Chinese immigrants who spread into the Mother Lode with the Gold Rush or moved eastward with the railroad-building.
Artistic Director Rene Yung will develop a new San Francisco script based on research and interviews about these indispensable but under-acknowledged workers.
“Our Oakland” Library Windows by Rene Yung
The new East Oakland Community Library features art glass designed by Rene Yung in a 64-foot bank of clerestory windows in the main reading room, and an Interactive Pod housing a monitor dedicated to the Our Oakland website.
The art glass design shows an image of overlapping ripples to symbolize community interconnection and replenishment. See more of the windows.
Next time, advice from the Harmony Project interviewees on achieving clarity and accountability in working relationships. There are links to all of the previous Harmony newsletters in the Harmony Project section of our website.
Note: This bi-weekly series about successful collaborations between women artists and community organizations is part of the WomenArts Harmony Project. This project has been made possible by a generous grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
About Arlene Golbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer and consultant focusing on the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. See her talks and writings at her Web site: arlenegoldbard.com/.
WomenArts is supported by generous grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Meyer Levy Charitable Foundation, the Peace Development Fund, East Bay Community Foundation, the Leo S. Guthman Fund, the Do A Little Fund, and by gifts of time, energy and money from artists and arts supporters around the world.