HOW WOULD EACH OF YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELVES?
KLEAVER: Right now, the description that I’m giving myself is black, queer, latinx, male (whatever that means), and committed to being my best self.
WALTER: Black, latinx, male, and I’m committed to using visual arts to communicate the messages that need to be told about our communities.
WHEN DID THE BOTH OF YOU REALIZE WHAT YOUR MEDIUMS WERE?
W: I would say about five years ago we both had graduated, traveled abroad for a little, then came back and I landed a regular 9-5 job for a non-profit. While I was at the nonprofit, Kleav started at The Future Project and at the time they had a mentorship model programming, so I signed up for this program to be a “future coach”. The student I was assigned was really into art. The program tries to match you up with a young person who shares similar interests with you. I was assigned a young man who wanted to make his own art show. I had personally never done an art show, and I didn’t know how to coach a person to do something that I’ve never done, so I needed to pull it off first. I attempted to grab a bunch of creative people that I knew and saved up a bunch of money and I put on this art show with the help of Kleav and a bunch of our friends.
It was a huge success and the first time I had ever made art for a specific show and exhibited it publicly. I sold my first two pieces. After a few more requests it got to the point where I was working nonstop on top of going to work, and I had to decide if I was going to stay comfortable at my job, or go out and pursue this head on. Ever since, I’ve been figuring out what art looks like to me, and my focus has shifted from creating art for personal uses to creating art that is helpful to the community. Using art less as a medium, and more as a tool of communication.
“I can never get tired of saying all Black lives matter. Because it is still necessary to say that because everyone is not with that. Because even when we are in our communities, everybody is not with everybody yet and that’s more of my concern than whatever white people think.“
FOR KLEAVER, IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU USE YOUR LITERARY BACKGROUND TO HELP OUT THE COMMUNITY?
K: I’ve been trying to figure that out. This morning, I watched the 13th documentary (Ava DuVernay) and it reminded me of a trajectory of black people. The question for Walter and I is that we are black people who were born and grew up in the US, but our heritage, our ancestry is from a different part of the world. So how can I acknowledge that there’s a black experience that has allowed me to seek liberation in this country.
For me literally part of my job is to tell the truth, wherever that is, but also articulate an experience that I don’t see. That’s why I write; to tell the stories that didn’t exist when I needed them the most. Because so often I don’t see this. Where is the flood of Black queer Dominican kids growing up in uptown New York City, they’re not really there. So one job would be to tell that story, but where are the branches leading up to that story. We were raised by two black women, one who is Dominican, and one who doesn’t identify herself as black, and how did that control who I became, and choose not to be anymore.
Part of my writing is imagining. Somebody imagining that we can be free, somebody imagining that these things could exist before they did, and my writing is my way of articulating that. To write is a way of practicing that, and to live it is owning it.
W: I can agree with that. My practice has changed throughout the years. I tell Kleaver that I label myself as a visual journalist. I conduct research about our people, and seek out what we need to tell, what are those stories, and how do I evoke that visually, but also how do I re-imagine what that can look like. If I’m talking about public housing and looking beyond this is what public housing came from, and I try to visually reimagine where public housing can go; what are the solutions to that?
Kleaver and I can agree that we never try to give back, but instead always trying to build and help other people out. The idea of giving back creates a need. We don’t want people to feel as though they’re needy but instead you have it in you, we’re just trying to help bring it out.
WE LIVE IN A DAY AND AGE WHERE PEOPLE TALK ABOUT CONSCIOUS RAP AND PEOPLE BEING “WOKE,” DO YOU FEEL AS ARTISTS AND INFLUENCERS THAT YOU FEEL OBLIGATED TO BE AWARE OF THE TIMES AND THE CURRENT STRUGGLES OF PEOPLE OF COLOR? AS THOUGH YOU CAN’T ONLY BE AN ARTIST, BUT THAT YOU HAVE TO BE AN ACTIVIST AND AN ARTIST.
W: Going to hip-hop it’s a spectrum, you gotta have it all. You don’t know what conscious rap is if you don’t have gangsta rap. You don’t have that language if there’s no contrast. I think it’s okay if you’re intentional about what you’re creating. It shouldn’t be, I’m making this because I’m an artist. I’m making this because it serves this purpose. It has a different tone and weight if you say I created this because of x, y, and z. It’s different with people creating with no intentionality.
It should be second nature when I ask you why did you create this piece, you shouldn’t be stumbling and fumbling.
YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN ORGANIC ART?
W: It’s different if you’re like “eh, eh” but if you’re like yeah I woke up this morning, and I felt like I had this goal.
SO, THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING VULNERABLE IN YOUR WORK AND BEING GENUINE TO YOURSELF AS AN ARTIST, VERSUS SOMEONE CREATING BECAUSE IT LOOKS NICE, AND SOCIETY APPROVAL?
W: Which goes back to being “woke”, even that is marketed. It’s like the woke Olympics. It’s like I have to be jumping through hoops to prove that I know this fact and that book. There are people who have never been to college that can run circles around “scholars”. It’s not about the pieces of paper you have in your room.
WITH THE BOTH OF YOU BEING AMONG ONE OF THE FOUNDING MEMBERS OF THE BLACK LIVES MATTER NYC CHAPTER, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE MEDIA’S PERCEPTION OF THE MOVEMENT?
W: I think the most important thing to think about is the distinction that a lot of black lives matter chapters, which manifested as a result of a direct action, not the hashtag in 2013. So two weeks after Mike Brown was killed, Darnell Moore, Patrice Cullors, Monica Dennis, and a few other people got together and focused on creating an act of solidarity to combat what was happening in Ferguson during the time. So in two weeks they organized funds, invited people out, we personally had to take the bus to St. Louis and we went there. That weekend was all about learning and organizing. It simply read off “we here.” Figuring out ways we could help out in Ferguson, but also understand what exactly was happening, and how do we bring that back to where we’re from (NYC). That weekend was the genesis of the network chapters.
The trip was brutal to St.Louis, but we had people like Dr. Brittney Cooper, giving impromptu lessons on feminism at the back of the bus. It was such a beautiful experience, it showed me what Black love can look like, more than what I had ever seen before. All of us Queer, Trans, Straight, any iteration of Blackness; loving each other in a way that is conscious and moves.
K: People are working in philanthropy, in tech, in all these different realms. Which is another reminder that it has to happen on every level. It can’t just be the stuff that we’re seeing on tv. It’s not that it’s not enough because that is a part of it, but we have to be doing the part that people aren’t seeing the ugly messy part. The part that people won’t write about.
I also think it is important to note there has been this appropriation of the BLM name in the NYC area with someone purporting themselves to be the president of “Black Lives Matter New York,” but there is only one official chapter: Black Lives Matter New York City. We also can’t police it. It’s complex because we’re essentially taking on a name as an organizing body that has also been branded by the media as the name of a movement.
It allows for folks to use BLM without necessarily have a direct connection with organizers or the politics of its general. So, sometimes it won’t have the best representation, and that in turn causing this interesting tension. Yet, at the end of the day, we’re all here and get to use this (BLM). We just happen to represent a certain element of our voice within it.
WITH THE VARIOUS OPINIONS WITHIN THE BLM MOVEMENT, DO YOU FEEL LIKE THE INTENTION OR PURPOSE IS EVER LOST?
K: I would say that it’s all of it and it’s important to remember that action looks a whole bunch of different ways and that we actually need all of those different ways. And at its core, BLM is about all Black people, the homeless, the sex worker, the person that’s incarcerated, the transgender community… All of us. We get to figure out what needs to happen, but being killed is not one of them. Our lives do have value and I think what happens is to Walter’s point, the question really is why are you doing this? And who are you doing it for? Are you actually considering all Black lives or are you going to talk about those certain crevices over there? They’re not here for everybody. That’s not the same message as saying that all Black lives matter. I think sometimes what happens inside of us is that not everyone…
That’s part of what makes this powerful is that one of the previous generations were of straight Black families and we’re going to try to put up that image so that we can fit in. And we’re more like fuck that. All of us matter. We don’t have to wear suits, none of that shit fucks all that! All of us matter! That’s kind of strong, but it’s the truth of like how do we disrupt that is what that was. And there are a lot of people that weren’t even seen like Bayard Rustin did not get nearly as much shine and he was responsible for the thing that people quote the most about that movement. And so I think it is also about being mindful of the reality of what it’s always been too. And even when we’re thinking about those moments, that was Black women, that was queer people.
We’ve always been there. And I think now it’s just about articulating that as much as possible. I can never get tired of saying all Black lives matter. Because it is still necessary to say that because everyone is not with that. Because even when we are in our communities, everybody is not with everybody yet and that’s more of my concern than whatever white people think.
WHAT SPECIFICALLY CAN YOUNG LEADERS, YOUNG ARTISTS, AND CREATIVES CONTINUE TO DO AND START DOING FOR NOT ONLY BLM BUT FOR ANY OF THE OTHER MOVEMENTS THAT ARE CURRENTLY GOING ON?
W: One of our chapter members, Carmen Dixon, said it best when she said, “This is a get in where you fit in movement.” It’s not about I need to be the next MLK… I need to be the next whoever… This is my set of tools and how do I use that to help other people out and that you don’t always have to be helping out at BLM or BYP100. There’s a woman down the street that runs a group at a church, how do you help her out? There are all these hyper local people that you can really be helping out that can ripple out to bigger places.
I would also add that it might just look like doing shit at home like talking to your grandma. That’s a way of taking initiative. It doesn’t always have to be at work. It is also talking to your brother about how not be homophobic or misogynistic. Challenging your family members to be better is a start at helping to change the world. It’s small ripples, that’s what it comes down to.
K: It’s that everyday work. It doesn’t have to be some grandiose. That’s really important that a bunch of us are having these conversations with family members. If you’re on the train and you hear something crazy. You can be like, Yo! That’s not cool. I gotta educate you real quick. If you’re worried about getting into articles, then you’re doing the wrong thing.
You’re not supposed to be doing this for recognition. We’re trying to help people stay alive, this is not about being in the newspaper. We are trying to keep people alive and make sure that people are able to survive every day. That’s what it comes down to. We’re doing this because we genuinely care about all Black lives.
ANY OTHER PROJECTS YOU GUYS WOULD LIKE TO MENTION?
K: I’ve been working on this project called The Black Joy Project for 10 months and it started after our uncle passed away suddenly. At the end of that year, grieving. I woke up feeling sad and I was sitting in my bed wondering how do I get over this or work through this and I was thinking about the ways joy had manifested itself in my life and to heal. With BLM we go to parties and just share laughter, it felt so good. Or like random shit that we do with our family.
So I was thinking of this image I had taken of my mom in front of this painting that she really liked and she was smiling and it made me happy, so I put it up on Facebook and it was like this call to action. That as we flood the internet with all these really violent and traumatic images, which is important too. But as we’re doing it, we can also add spaces of joy that can offer that resistance and that healing. For me it was spiritual, out of this world to push and do this thing that I did not know where it was going to go. Now, it’s like 200 pictures in and it’s been almost 10 months. I’ve gone to Paris, AfroPunk, New Orleans, San Francisco, anywhere I’ve gone in the last 10 months, I’ve made sure to have some level of contact with people there, asking them about Black Joy and what it is.
It’s amazing because I am seeing how karma is bringing all this energy to me on the regular. I just have all this joy and it sustains me. I want to keep doing this because I think there is another reason to fight. I actually am engaged because I want every Black person to experience this on the regular and maybe one day without it having to be a form of resistance. It’s a way of being.
W: I did this fellowship called the Create Change fellowship with an organization called the laundromat project. The org’s premise is, how do we as artists and creative people engage and be in the community wherever you live to bring about creative solutions using the arts and local spaces that are accessible to a community. The first iteration of these projects was at laundromats because it’s a place that everyone goes to. How do we reactivate a laundromat to be an art gallery? How do we reactivate a laundromat to be place to have screen printing workshops or teach people English?
I did it this year and was based in the South Bronx and the idea was how do we stay in the community and learn from people in the community and figure out what is it that they need. Creating solutions to address the problems there using our creativity. For our project, my group and I had local Bronx graffiti Andre Trenier, paint a mural of Assata Shakur at a plaza that is normally inactive, we reactivated the space using art.
We had a local school group stop by as well children in the community. We provided snacks and art supplies and had them tell the world why they were proud to live in the Bronx. Nearby there was a community garden run by a phenomenal woman named Tonya Fields. She runs the Black Project, which is urban farming organization teaching folks in low-income neighborhoods how to grow to produce and eat healthy on a tight budget.
During our day of action, Tanya taught community members how to make pesto by using very simple ingredients. She grows the peppers for the Bronx hot-sauce. She’s trying to teach folks urban farming is a thing and that you can grow your own produce, you don’t have to buy into the system. She drives a converted school bus selling fresh produce. We were also in partnership with Mothers on the Move, which is a group of women who decided to band together and help their community in the South Bronx, the past 25 years they’ve been advocating for many different things including housing rights for local tenants.
For us as artists, it’s asking, how do we highlight all of these amazing things that I learned in the past 7 months and bring it together for everybody, so that when we leave, people can continue to keep coming back and say, “Yeah, I want to see that drumming, I want to chill with Tonya at the garden, I want to make art on the plaza. It leaves that lasting thing for people to continue after I’m gone.
We are also a part of this organizing group called We Are All Dominican (W.A.A.D.) that formed in 2013 in response to a resolution. In 2013 there was a resolution passed at the Supreme Court of the DR that effectively denationalized tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants, which is basically Black people or who people deem as Black people who were living in DR. What we’ve been organizing is how to amplify the voices of the people that are on the ground, especially this group , a group of young people who are of Haitian descent to gain back their citizenship. We are working to elevate that story and to let Dominicans here know what is going on and how they can support them and connect the dots. It can happen anywhere.
Being in this country is a hard thing, it’s a daily struggle to stay alive and that oftentimes affects my artwork. Something I have been focusing on as of late is earning residencies and grants in order to create space that allows me to create freely.