REVIEW: Schwarze Adler (Black Eagles)

Last Friday the German Department hosted a free curated screening of the 2021 independent documentary film “Schwarze Adler” (translated from German: “Black Eagles”). The space they held it in at North Quad was great – it was huge, with floor-to-ceiling windows spanning the length of one wall, whiteboards and cushy chairs spanning the other, and a big blank wall up front to project the film onto. The physically-distanced chairs they’d set up in the room were fairly packed with people coming for the event.

Watching this documentary was a pretty emotional experience for me (which is why it took me so long to write this review!).

Steffi Jones, former defender for the national team

Seeing footage in 2021 of fans at a soccer game doing the Hitler salute will do something to your psyche. I’m privileged — some people don’t have the choice of whether to turn away from the screen, because they live through this every day. Imagine being a player on a professional sports team where the only difference between you and your teammates is that your skin is a shade darker. You’re trying to focus on the game you’ve trained for for most of your life when you suddenly hear 1000s of fans in the stands surrounding you, most of which are from your own country where you were born and raised, yelling at you to go back where you came from. That’s an experience that was recounted by every single German soccer player interviewed in this documentary.

The way fans treat athletes is something worth having a whole discussion on. Cheering for your favorite players and booing when the other team scores is all good fun. But when that morphs into jeering, chanting hateful racial slurs, and hurling insults at players, that’s when it becomes absolutely cruel. Michigan football games are not immune to this behavior. We put athletes on pedestals, but they are not made of titanium, they’re made of flesh and blood! They’re humans just like us and when fans dehumanize them, they deprive them of so much: joy from being on the field, joy from being with their teammates, and the focus they need to stay in the game.

Gerald Asamoah, former forward

Many of the players in the documentary talked about how hearing those shouts of “go back to your country” and “kick out the negro” would affect their playing, and they thought about it for the whole rest of the game. At one point one of the players, Gerald Asamoah said he had “never seen such hate anywhere else before.” One of his fellow teammates of color left Germany to play for Ghana because of the experience. Another player, after being subjected to it for half a game, picked up a small red crate on the sidelines and threw it down in a fit of anger. His teammates said nothing to him — the referee just handed him a yellow card. Another recounted how sad it made him when he saw that not only were the parents chanting slurs, but their small children were too.

Almost all of the players also made connections between the way they were treated to Germany’s dark history. “How can you show this behavior when we have seen exactly where it leads?” I think the same could be said of racism in our country. The U.S. has an equally dark history, it’s just that it’s usually glossed over in our history textbooks.

When the credits began to roll, I was feeling kind of hopeless and defeated. I know that’s not the right response to world issues, but I couldn’t help it. But then one of the professors from the German department got up to say a few words.
Here’s what she said, paraphrased:
“Don’t be disheartened. These thoughts of racism have accrued over centuries and it will take time to undo them. Martin Luther King Jr. was only assassinated 52 years ago so really we’re just at the beginning of the work to undo it. And don’t feel bad if you are not the one who goes out and marches and shows up in a big way. The small acts matter to. Every act of kindness, and every act that does something to acknowledge the humanity in others matters.”

So go out and show up in a small or in a big way this week, and know that we have a long way to go but every act matters.

REVIEW: Prisons and Politics in America Exhibit

Tucked away in a corner of Hatcher North’s first floor is the Audubon room, named for the extremely rare volume of naturalist James Audubon’s “Birds of America” paintings that it houses. From now until March 24, it also houses the Prisons and Politics in America exhibition curated by Julie Herrada.

“Prisons and Politics in America: An Exhibit of Art, Poetry, Letters and Prison Resistance from 1890 to Today,” examines the political reasons for why people are imprisoned: for speaking out, for writing, for violating repressive laws, framed because of their color or politics, for stealing from the rich, for refusing the military draft, for whistleblowing, for attempting to overthrow the government, for standing up for a belief, or for walking over a forbidden line.

The items focus on maintaining one’s humanity behind bars, promoting political causes, and offering solidarity in support of prisoners.

 

 

The exhibit was pretty small, with a total of 39 items, but I thought it was a fitting size. The items on display were well-chosen and represented a variety of time periods, activist movements, and prison injustices. I learned a great deal by walking around and slowly taking each artifact in, reading the thoughtfully-written blurb about each.

“San Quentin Days: Poems of a Prison” by Anonymous

There were all sorts of artifacts: from protest pinback buttons to FBI Wanted posters to comics to a recipe for DIY prison ice cream. The most moving parts of the exhibit for me were the sections displaying prison writing: poetry, letters, memoirs, books. Writing is one of the most powerful tools of expression that a prisoner has, and also is one of the only ways they have to connect to the outside world. Some of the items in the collection were extremely rare and among only a few surviving copies around the world. Writing is hard enough in a comfortable space – can you imagine how difficult it must be to write from prison?

I had forgotten how far back the history of protest and activism goes. Every time a new movement starts , to me it can feel like a whole new isolated effort, which is a huge sign of my privilege. There are many who are not given the chance to forget the history to which movements are attached to because those issues affect them every single day. Rarely is there an injustice so new that there were no ancestors who had to fight it in their time too.

 

Free John Now! Poster, 1971

The exhibit sparked some thoughts for me on how activism has changed over the past century and how it has stayed the same. The language in some of the items in the exhibit was very similar to the language I see in protest posters printed today. Strong language, fueled by a sense of justice. Images of chains and bondage and upright fists underneath calls to action like “FREE [X]” and “STOP [Y].”

Attica. Poster, [197?]
The greatest difference I see is because of something that modern-day activists have that the past did not: digital technology. I am amazed at the materials people used in the past — postcards, buttons, flyers — that had to be distributed by hand and on foot. Imagine if the leaders of the 1919 labor strikes in Detroit had access to a computer at the library where they could open up a Microsoft Publisher document, put together a graphic and slap it on Facebook or Instagram for free. It has been said often in the Information Age, but I’ll say it again: our modern-day ability to disseminate information so quickly and widely is borderline magic.

Free Gary Tyler Poster, [197?]
I will say that I would have arranged the exhibit a little differently. The arrangement of artifacts seemed to maximize how much I had to walk. I also would have also liked it if items that were part of the same “movement” or at least from the same time period in history were placed close together to make the exhibit feel more cohesive. The decision to put this exhibit in the Audubon room strikes me as a bit strange, given that James Audubon was known to oppose the abolition of slavery and argued that black and indigenous people were inferior. Many of the incarcerated people mentioned in this exhibit were of black or indigenous origin and were jailed by blatantly racist judicial systems on little to no evidence, a term labeled “legal lynching”. A small acknowledgement of the fact that their stories are right now sharing the same space with the legacy of a proslavery individual would have been thoughtful.

If you’re ever studying in Hatcher, I highly recommend slipping away for a bit to check out this exhibit in the Audubon Room on the first floor. It is well worth the visit and I guarantee you’ll learn something new!

REVIEW: Choir Boy by the Rude Mechanicals

The subtitle “…A moving story of sexuality, race, hope, gospel music, and a young gay man finding his voice” was already enough to get me to the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on a Saturday night to see this play. Then I found out that Choir Boy was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Academy Award-winning writer of the film Moonlight, and I was doubly sold. Something to know about me: I love any chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit, especially those with vastly different stories than mine.

This production was put on by Rude Mechanicals, a student-run theater group on campus. They produce one play a semester and run everything themselves, from costumes to set design to the actors and crew. This was the first Rude Mechanicals production I’d ever been to and I was impressed. The trailer they made for the play was really cool and just shows how much work they put into it:

I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who has yet to see this gem of a play, but I will say that it is so very RELEVANT. A recurring theme throughout the story is intimacy: who gets deprived of it in society, who you’re allowed to have it with. The actors were so incredibly talented and displayed the intimacy of the play so well. My favorite character was Anthony, the main character’s roommate, for this reason. Whenever the cast sang together it filled the entire theater and gave me chills. They harmonized like they could do it in their sleep. The audience was super into it – cheering and clapping after each musical number, ooh-ing in sympathy when characters got hurt, hmm-ing to the lines of dialogue that struck the deepest.

I will say that I don’t think this was a very accessible production. None of the performers wore microphones which made it hard to hear them at times, especially when they were speaking with their backs to the audience. More than once I would hear the audience burst out into laughter around me and wonder what joke I had just missed on stage. The seating arrangement of the Lydia Mendelssohn theater is also not my favorite and isn’t tiered in a way that allows you to see the stage well from the rows that are not at the front. It’s a historic theater which is something to keep in mind. All in all I think the students did what they could with the space they had.

If you have a chance to go see the Rude Mechanicals’ production of Animal Farm next March, I highly recommend you take it!

REVIEW: Zero Grasses by Jen Shyu

I confess that I don’t quite know how to review Jen Shyu’s Zero Grasses performance piece. I’m a beginner to performance art. I don’t see it very often, and when I do most of it goes over my head. It’s true that I didn’t understand all of this performance, but what I can say is that I am so, so glad I went to it regardless because it connected with parts of my identity that I didn’t expect it to.

This artist residency was made possible by the Center for World Performance Studies (CWPS) at UM! They connect with students, artists, and scholars all across the globe to advocate for the power of performance for research and for public engagement. They work with lots of great artists, and center on underrepresented, non-Western, and diasporic voices, bodies, and acts. Check out their website to learn more, their next event is coming up on December 8.

Jen Shyu is a vocalist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and dancer. She graduated from Stanford in opera and has

 

classical violin and ballet training and has studied traditional music and dance from numerous cultures around the world. I went into Jen Shyu’s performance knowing none of this and came out thinking one thing: She is fully, imperfectly, human.

In Zero Grasses, Jen Shyu explores parts of her past that are, as she described in the post-performance Q&A, “icky.” She reenacted the moment she found out about her father’s passing while working abroad. The news came from an email message, cold and stark and impersonal, screenshotted and projected onto the stage. She danced and sang through the story of a relationship she had with a man twice her age. She read a diary entry from her childhood about the time she was called a racial slur as she stepped off the bus. She lay on the floor in grief when, after a lengthy and expensive medical procedure, the doctor only extracted one viable egg.

The performance was not neatly separated. She skips back and forth between chapters of her life, showing how messy they are, showing how a page written in a diary journal when she was 8 has parallels with her job as a salsa dancer at age 23. The creativity of it all blew me away. Numerous different instruments (most of which I can’t remember the names of) were strategically placed around the stage. Jen would fluidly move between them, coaxing music out of each to back up her rich singing like it was as easy as breathing. The main props used were giant cardboard boxes, each with artifacts from her past. At times she would paw through the boxes, fling them across the stage, or stack them on top of each other as a makeshift wall to project media onto.

The projections of pictures and videos that she had taken on her phone made it so REAL. I was looking at history but I was also looking at something that was continuously being created, a picture that could have been taken yesterday. I think it was the perfect way to capture Jen’s journey with grief, how she felt it anew each day. It was very alive.

In the Q&A, I asked how she was able to explore these vulnerable parts of her past and portray herself in a light that isn’t so great while still protecting her mental health. She responded that she is always thinking about who she could be helping with her art. She feels she would be doing more harm if she DIDN’T talk about these uncomfortable topics because they’re already taboo and it’s hard for people to find a safe space to process them. She does this in an attempt to have that connection with somebody in the audience who thinks “You’re not alone, I was there too at one point in my life.”

I really admire that courage.

REVIEW – “Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test” at Red Bull Arts Detroit

Akeem Smith’s No Gyal Can Test exhibition at Red Bull Arts Detroit transgresses disciplinary classifications and the expectancy for a singular ethnographic history of dancehall, which is readily accessible to a globalized audience eager to exploit its cultural legacy.

In Jamaica, upper-class families grill their home to deter robberies of their houses. Smith utilizes these grills to protect the archival dancehall photographic and film footage behind, which ranges the two decades between the 80s and 2000s. Protruding from the flat walls of the building’s underground tombs, these decorative homes symbolize the artist’s attitude toward a global viewership that commodifies the hypervisible women of the movement. The voyeurim of the gallery visitor questions the assumed invitation to peer through cast iron metal shields. What is offered and what is withheld? On the other hand, their installation can also be perceived in relation to wealthy Jamaicans’ refusal to accept the cultural and political revolution of dancehall as a national signifier. Viewers are meant to question their position within, or outside of, the household in order to better understand what is deserving of safeguarding.

In these and other wall works, photographs and videos are intentionally obscured, offering a limited visual scope to the memories they document. Queens Street, an assembled building with an exposed interior,  encases a single-channel video that plays abstracted and slowed-down footage of a dance. Because there is a gap between the welded metal doorway attached to the front of the house and the leftmost edge of the adjacent window, viewers are situated awkwardly outside this personal space peering indoors. The portrait included in Black Queen, a minimal and rectangular wall work made with salvaged, black building remnants, is hidden from view behind an top section of latticework. The woman’s face is almost entirely encased in its shadow.

Curated by Maxwell Wolf and Kenta Murakami, this unique expression of love culminates the preceding twelve years of archival work and outreach to honor the legacy of the dancehall community Smith grew up around in Kingston, Jamaica. Born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in the Waterhouse District in Kingston before returning to Crown Heights, Smith is the godson of Paula Ouch, the founder of the Ouch fashion house, an all women’s team that shaped the visual loudness of the era. Several of their garments on view are draped on mannequins sculpted by collaborative artist Jessi Reaves that commemorate the women of his youth and particularly Sandra Lee, the central fashion and hair stylist. Jewelry by Brando, his grandmother’s former partner, is juxtaposed alongside these original pieces. The interwoven nature of his life is further solidified through his grandma, who raised him alongside his mom, and co-owned La Roose club in Portmore, a coastal city that borders Kingston. Materials – corrugated zinc, tarp, repurposed wood, and breeze – from the building’s facade, as well as other disused social spaces, make up the main components of Smith’s deeply-personal installations.

While Smith’s process implements specific protocols to procure and ethically compensate Jamaicans who provided him with the exhibition material, the extension of these guidelines within the gallery are ultimately left to the discretion of the visitor. What is implicated through the exhibition’s free admission and allowance of photography that facilitates a capturing of images among visitors?

Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test is on view at Red Bull Arts Detroit in Eastern Market every Friday – Sunday from 12 pm – 7 pm until July 30. Reservations are required. Appointments to see the Soursop offsite installation at Woods Cathedral in Detroit can also be made using the same webpage: https://ngct.redbullarts.com

 

Artist Information:

Akeem Smith – Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/akeemouch/

PREVIEW – Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test at Red Bull Arts Detroit

Installation View of Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test at Red Bull Arts New York 2020. Photo by Daro Lasagni. All artwork courtesy the artist and Red Bull Arts

Red Bull Arts Detroit is hosting the second iteration of Akeem Smith’s traveling exhibition, No Gyal Can Test. This show, which premiered on April 16 and runs until July 30, explores the dancehall community in Kingston, Jamaica. Through collaborative sonic-sculptures that four-dimensionally collage ephemera – photographs, videos, garments and jewelery, along with architectural materials sourced from musical congregation sites now existing through public memory – Smith transports a display of togetherness resonant today in the ever-evolving and globalized community. Because Detroit’s cityscape reveals prevalent musical archives encoded within architectural fragments of former music and dance spots, I’m excited to see and hear how Smith’s exhibition is intimately recontextualized within a local arts space.