Meet Inside Outside, Upside Down Artist Jessica Valoris

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Jessica Valoris about her video work in the Phillips 100th anniversary Juried Invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down. 

The City at Peace youth development program in Washington, DC, introduced Jessica Valoris to art as a catalyst for collective healing in her high school years. “It was the first time I experienced art as a way that I could connect. Where I could experience my own emotions and also experience compassion and empathy with other people,” said Valoris.

The program seeks to provide a safe, collaborative, and nurturing space for young folks to examine systems of oppression. “It totally changed the trajectory of my life. Being in spaces with other young folks who were exploring these things and developing a language to make sense of all of the violences that we were experiencing.” For Valoris, this made her approach to her artistry focused on the collective and community from the get go.

As the protests and uprisings ensued with the police murder of George Floyd, Valoris became deeply immersed in the study of Black fugitivity and marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery. She dedicated all of her media consumption to learning about these histories, from watching documentaries to making playlists and listening to oral histories.

“There was this extra push that felt like as the world was talking about abolition, I really wanted to root it in the experiences of our ancestors and the fugitive ancestors that made abolition possible,” said Valoris. “What are the practices they created and innovated that we can learn from  now in this moment?”

Her piece in the show, still: a rival geography, pays homage to her Black and Jewish ancestry through ritual practice. The video, which was shot on an iPhone and edited in iMovie, was the result of her participation in a collaborative commission called black/water facilitated by Ebony Noelle Golden. The project tasked artists with exploring the relationship between Blackness and water. For her, this became a way to link what once felt like disparate parts of her identity—her Blackness and Jewishness.

While exploring her histories, she began to consider Jewish ritual around water, which is evident in the beginning of still: a rival geography. “When you wake up you’re supposed to wash your hands and say a blessing over it. It’s basically just understanding that everything you touch, everything that touches you is sacred,” Valoris said.

Jessica Valoris with her work in the Inside Outside, Upside Down galleries.

The video progresses to the practice of the creation of a sacred circle which is present in many different traditions, including ancient Judaic processes. She writes names inside an incantation bowl, a practice traditionally completed by burying the bowl under one’s home once the names of their ancestors are listed to protect one’s family.

All of these rituals are tied to her ancestral lineage, but it’s the soundscape that seems to unite the piece, tying the rituals together. The emphasis on stillness emerged from a trip she took to South Carolina to visit her elders. Upon her arrival she threw out her back, finding herself unable to move, forced to be still.

As she spoke with water doulas who were a part of the larger black/water project, she was advised to listen to her body and consider what it was asking her to do. Stillness was the answer. Searching for stillness in the midst of the particular chaos of the past couple of years brought on by the pandemic and heightened racial tensions is perhaps a decision to preserve and to care for oneself and others.

 

 

Meet Inside Outside, Upside Down Artist Kokayi

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Grammy-nominated multidisciplinary artist Kokayi, whose photography is in the Phillips 100th anniversary Juried Invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down.

Kokayi photographed by Lexey Swall, Courtesy of the artist

“No, you’re going to take the pictures.” That’s what Kokayi’s wife said to him back in 2019 when he considered searching for a photographer to create the visuals alongside the record he was working on, “HUBRI$,” as a Halcyon Fellow. He hesitated to consider himself a “photographer” at the time. In his fellowship proposal for the project, he wrote that he would be hiring a photographer to shoot the visuals.

Photo from “HUBRI$” visuals, Courtesy of the artist

Anytime he’s gone on tour, he’s taken photos with intent, looking to document and capture a moment. Yet, the imposter syndrome he felt about being the photographer for his own project crept up.

“When you’re around a bunch of artists who you know are at the top of their field, that’s the other intimidating part,” said Kokayi, who has always been surrounded by circles of creatives including folks with great eyes working in photography and videography.

After expressing feelings of discomfort around shooting the visuals for his work, his photographer friends were the ones to push him, suggesting he needed to just pick up the camera and holler at them when he was ready to get into it. And he did, he picked up the camera and learned along the way. It wasn’t the start of something new, but a recognition of something always there, just waiting to be developed.

From childhood, Kokayi’s interests spanned a wide range of artistic practices from graffiti to music-making. He attributes some of this initial exploration and multi-faceted approach to the hip hop culture he grew up in.

“Hip hop culture started out multi-faceted. There were a multitude of kids that breakdanced, did graffiti, DJed, beatboxed. You know everything—the fashion and style, they did all the stuff. It wasn’t like you did one thing. You weren’t a monolith,” said Kokayi. “Black people aren’t monoliths. Hip hop isn’t monolithic. People aren’t monolithic, but you know they try to paint us, especially as a Black person, try to paint me into a corner based on my pedigree.”

Photo from “HUBRI$” visuals, Courtesy of the artist

The artist reminds the youth he works with as a mentor not to allow others to dictate how they express themselves. He finds himself reminding adults about this too.

A man once expressed that he didn’t have any musical talent to Kokayi as they waited in an airport, and he responded with “Yes, you do. When you were a kid (and this is what I tell the classes), when you were a kid, you would make up songs. You would make up songs and plays and poetry and all kinds of things just expressing yourself artistically. And the time that you stopped is when somebody told you you weren’t good. That’s when you quit.”

Kokayi doesn’t quit. He keeps learning whether it be through a book, sweat equity, or his practice. He continues to develop what’s always been there even if that practice or craft hasn’t been as deeply explored as some of his others. So when his friend called to ask if he could come take pictures of her beauty shop before she closed the doors for the last time, he was there.

His friend built the shop from the ground up, doing the interior design work piece by piece, and paying for it all through her labors as a hairstylist doing heads in her home. He watched her open the shop. Now, he photographs her closing the shop.

Kokayi, When Letting Go is Love, 2020, Photograph, Giclee Print, Courtesy of the artist

“It was tearing me up to even clip the thing,” Kokayi said in reference to taking the photos. The candid he took of her looking out the window in her final moments with the shop, When Letting Go is Love, is one he debated submitting to the call for Inside Outside, Upside Down.

He asked himself if this was trauma porn or an exploitation of his homies’ sadness. He knew the weight of that day and ultimately, decided to be very intentional to share a true narrative in the statement for the piece.

While her glance out the window might be interpreted as somber, her composure is held as she sits upright and out of focus. “For me what made sense is it’s out of focus like she’s out of focus right now,” said Kokayi.

So many, especially Black women and folks of other marginalized identities, tackled an onslaught of extrapolated inequities with the pandemic. He captured a moment that so many felt and lived. Perhaps not a resilience, but an endurance.

The Nicholson Project recently announced Kokayi as one of their upcoming fellows for 2022, and his book, You are Ketchup: And Other Things Known by a Career Musician, comes out in March of 2022.

Meet Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Mojdeh Rezaeipour

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Mojdeh Rezaeipour about her video work in The Phillips Collection’s 100th anniversary Juried Invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down.

Still from watching time watching god, Courtesy of the artist

Mojdeh Rezaeipour’s video felt momentarily complete for the first time as she viewed it at the opening of Inside Outside, Upside Down at the Phillips with former neighbors, who are now dear friends.

“We were all able to witness it together,” said Mojdeh.

Mojdeh’s meditative video, watching time watching god, documents the way time passes. She tracks light moving across the wall and the moon in the sky. Using projection mapping, she captures what’s happening outside the window and projects it onto a different surface of the house, making an imprint. She describes it as having a conversation with the house.

Behind the scenes of capturing the footage of watching time watching god, Courtesy of the artist

“For me, it felt like I’m telling the wall something—about what another part of the house experienced.” These aren’t the conversations she imagined having at the beginning of 2020.

As a resident artist at The Nicholson Project, Mojdeh proposed an on-site activation, allowing her to get to know her new neighbors in Southeast DC. Conscious of her positionality as a non-Black person of color applying to a residency in a quickly gentrifying DC, she sought to learn from community members in the predominantly Black area. “I wanted to somehow make my work a container for what was already there instead of just bringing my work there.”

Just as the city went into lockdown in March 2020, Mojdeh began The Nicholson Project’s Artist Residency Program. The residency welcomes artists from all creative disciplines who are especially interested in the role that art and design can play in strengthening the community to reside there for three months. As Mojdeh moved in, the world around her was closing down. A common occurrence for us all over the past 18 months, she found herself struggling to meet people. From scheduling Zoom teas to trying to make eye contact with folks on the street, she did all she could to connect.

Then, she found an unlikely answer through a different kind of connection right in front of her.

watching time watching god, 2020, Video, Courtesy of the artist, on view in Inside Outside, Upside Down

“It’s like—oh, okay, while I’m trying to have conversations with my neighbors, I’m also having a conversation with the house,” said Mojdeh. “The house is the most accessible entity with whom to have a conversation.”

As she bore witness to time passing in and around the house, the constant sounds served as a soundtrack of her time there and also the audio for the video. The typical sounds of a DC neighborhood—birds chirping, dogs barking, and helicopters overhead—serve as a steady hum throughout the piece. But it’s the ambulance sirens that might catch a listener by surprise. The home for the residency sits next to a highway that leads to a hospital. “The ambulance sirens were a reminder of the massive collective grief that we’re needing to process,” Mojdeh said.

After the police murder of George Floyd and the following uprisings and protests, she felt pretty clearly that this was not the time for her to have an exhibition. She held onto the work and shared the footage with a handful of neighbors who had become her good friends.

Rezaeipour with friends and fellow artist Nekisha Durrett at the opening of Inside Outside, Upside Down, Courtesy of the artist (Left to right: Nekisha Durrett , John, Seth, Mojdeh Rezaeipour, Gayle, and Kendall)

These same friends were able to join her at the opening of Inside Outside, Upside Down, the first public showing of the piece. “The work that we make is just as much about what is not visible as what is visible. And what is not visible but lives at the heart of the work I made in this exhibition are these relationships.”

Mojdeh continues to build relationships as she tackles a new research-based project centered on ancient pottery fragments originating in over 30 different sites across the Middle East. The project builds toward a collective project informed by conversations with artists and humans with lineages across all of the sites.

May we keep in mind the presence of those who might be physically absent.