I do recommend you listen to Beyonce’s XO when you step off the 7 train at the Willet’s Point stop. You’ll walk down a boardwalk that leads into the great green expanse that is Flushing Meadows Park. It makes you feel possible and electric. To your right, you’ll see Arthur Ashe Stadium and Tennis Center where every September one or both of the Williams sisters achieve excellence clinching the title of best in the nation. That realization will become clear to you just as Yonce deep Houston drawls, ‘this diamond. my diamond. this rock. my rock.’ Flawless isn’t such a surprise anymore. Women *been* waking up like this: working and achieving excellence. You will walk further along a grand promenade lined with London Plane trees on either side, reminiscent of the Great Mall in Central Park, toward the Unisphere and the ruins of the World’s Fair exhibition spaces. But by then, you’ve slowed your pace to an elegant march. Those hexagon stones and the bare [less] canopy of trees surround you, and you understand why people stroll arm in arm on promenades. You don’t rush this walk and let the world unfold before your eyes. Frank croons in your ear, I thought the world would revolve around us. But nothing I know can slow us down. And the world, is before you. The Unisphere, erected in April 1964 for the World’s Fair, is 12 stories high and weighs 700,000 tons. The sky is that perfect September morning, impossible blue and cloudless, and to your right, is an open field where brown boys play soccer. It’s not coincidence that Yonce’s Blue syncs with what you witnesss. They do remind you of a sequence from the visual album. Their play is a few meters away the recently renovated Queens Museum.
When you enter the museum you’ll hear a rhythmic percussion in the atrium, it is a work of a Mexican artist where recycled guns used in the drug war becomes an instrument of music. A few paces to your right, you are greeted by a mural, a body prostrate and in blurred motion, painted in black on the chalk white walls. The main exhibition is a riveting work that intersects with social justice and art, and the first solo retrospective show of artist Peter Schumann, the founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater. Schumann arrived in the US in 1961, and founded the Bread & Puppet Theater in 1963 on the lower east side of Manhattan. Drawing on his background in dance and sculpture, his art is informed by his upbringing in the aftermath of World War II, his masked characters and oversized surreal imagery is steeped in political commentary. He bakes and serves bread at the end of each performance.
Back in November, Samantha and I made our first trip to QMA shortly after the opening. We were immediately drawn to Schumann’s work. His artist statement is a found poem:
“Uncertain mind’s black/ and white language/ tries to cope with/ the progressive dirt of problems. The dirt sticks,/ the landscape thickens,/ the clouds are full of surprise/ attacks, combatants enter the scene,/ stormworn feet scramble in to rescue positions,/ the 3 categories of accelerated man (vertical, horizontal & diagonal)/ their architecture/ twisted from excessive speed,/ fall from the processed sky/ that contains their brain,/ into the shabby downbelow.”
Schumann writes of the exhibition, “The Shatterer Show presents shattered worlds confronted by the 99% giant and flag waver of the peasant boot flag, which his 15th century peasant colleagues raised against the capitalism of their day. The shatterer theme is from a) my nazi childhood, when worldshattering was the law of the land, & b) from Oppenheimer’s famous Bhagavad Gita quote ‘I am become death, the shatterer of worlds‘ at the occasion of the 1st atomic bomb explosion.”
The exhibition is a mixed media, the two galleries that integrate text, oversized faces, masks, disembodied hands and feet, made of cardboard and paper mache. There are rueful and mournful faces that surround you. There is a deliberate absence of color. When you enter The Shatterer House you feel broken. It has the effect of dream and nightmare. While the images wound, the words on the walls seek to reconcile with the reckoning. I wanted to look away, but I resisted. We look away a lot. The narrative of images in The Shatterer command you to bear witness, to acknowledge the spirit of people who have faced great injustices and oppression. We are compelled to consort with the dead as imagined here.
Over the past two years, we’ve witnessed incredible acts of human cruelty domestically and internationally. Since 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a bloody civil war, and just last summer, we learned that the Syrian regime used biological weapons on their own citizens in violation of international law. In 2012, we mourned the death of a 17 year old boy shot meters away from his father’ home, returning from a store with a pack of Skittles and were equally horrified that his murderer walks free. We’ve seen excessive force applied to demonstrators engaged in civil action as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, seeking to dramatize awareness of the widening gap of wealth in the United States. In Nigeria and Uganda, recent discriminatory laws against LGBT community threaten the personhood and safety of their citizens. Since 2009, we’ve witnessed youth and women in Iran, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt rise up against old regimes to push for social, political and cultural change as they faced violent retribution. This year in Turkey, Venezuela and Ukraine, people are engaged in struggles with their governments to address their social and economic concerns.
Uncertain mind’s black and white language tries to cope with the progressive dirt of problems. The world’s shattering. This broken world. My mind’s black and white language grasped for Martin Espada’s words in the quiet of the Shatterer gallery, unable to avert my eyes from what Schumann’s work demanded I see.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
I shared my revelation with Samantha; we knew instantly that Espada’s poem belonged in this space.
As part of the QMA’s poetry festival, ETERNiDAY, we built our installation around Schumann’s Shatterer collaborating with the amazing acapella trio Saheli (Elana Bell, Abena Koomson and Dara Lazar) and with Thuli and Samantha performing poems by Dunya Mikhail, Tyehimba Jess, culminating in a multi-voice performance of Martin Espada’s Imagine the Angels of Bread. Elana, Ngoma and Jon performed original works and Adam gave breath to Schumann’s words, singing a haunting rendition of his artist statement.
We were fortunate to have our installation coincide on a day where Mr. Schumann would be at the museum, serving bread to patrons after his artist’s talk. I don’t think I could have ever imagined a moment more powerful to have an artist witness how other artists connect to something he’s created. Mr. Schumann is a generous spirit, and I’d couldn’t imagine how he could not be. The work displays such an incredible empathy to the shared suffering of humanity. On one of the walls, the words “LOVEKISS” is painted with it’s definition “the change of human things”. I thought it a curious combination of words; it is a term that doesn’t exist in the English language. And perhaps it should. Lovekiss could be a force to repair a broken world. It is a combination of feeling and action. It is visionary and aspirational, a marriage between gestures that reminds of us of our humanity. I thought it curious that it would be part of the exhibit that dramatizes sorrow, but I realized after our performance that it is a promise of a change that only we can allow to come.