Entanglements: 004 - Asha Elana Casey and Lionel Frazier White III
Lionel Frazier White III and Asha Elana Casey met for tea at Calabash Tea near U St., Washington, DC. They have quite a shared history. They are both DC natives who attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, and were enrolled in the Masters of Arts Teaching program at Corcoran/GW. It was at the Corcoran where they became great friends. Casey and White both teach art to high school students. Casey is teaching at Archbishop Carroll Catholic High School. As a note, at the time of their interview White was finishing up his BFA degree. They both are active in the DC arts scene, showing consistently.
The conversation is edited and condensed for clarity.
*Lionel enters with a huge book bag.*
Elana : So, what is this?
Lionel: So, I'm finishing up, thank God, my last semester at Corcoran, to work on this paper called, "Make some noise." Basically, I am looking at how important black noise is in terms of the resistance of Gentrification. I think a part of the main crux of the thesis is just saying how important culture is to infrastructure.
E: So, If we are talking about gentrifying the district, I immediately think about GO-GO music and I immediately think about people banging on trash cans. I immediately relate it back to the problem at Gallery place where they were complaining about the noise level.
L: When we think about black noise in this city that is a push to silence black noise, and to basically silence black culture as a whole. I think when it comes to the neighborhood, noise is a very intrinsic part of a cultural sonic landscape. The same way you have visual landscapes with buildings, you have sonic landscapes. And so those things are very intrinsic to each other because culture and cultural production, like GO-GO, speak a lot to the character of the actual physical landscape. The physical landscape is an actual physical manifestation of the culture. Think about DC history and think about Howard University. When we think about the the politics surrounding blackness we have to consider the role of the Emancipation Proclamation. Without the Emancipation Proclamation, we wouldn’t have Howard University. DC was one of the first places to implement the Emancipation Proclamation. You have the birth of Howard University and you have the black intellectual class in the city; the black intellectual class has a ground swell of culture. You have Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye who are outgrowths of that DC culture. Later, you have Chuck Brown come in and then they start to produce a sound that is very directly related to the actual culture. Those cultural phenomena speak directly to the infrastructure of the city.
E: I immediately think about this body of work that you did around DC icons. You had Chuck Brown and Marion Barry. DC culture is really integral to your art, and even black identity and the church. These figures have halos around them. You are thinking about the church and DC culture and your consideration of black existence and how black people have risen in this society is really powerful. So, I want you to touch on when DC culture became important enough to mention in your artwork.
L: It was kind of a prompt from class. Think about your present location and where you are. How do you move throughout the city? A lot of my classmates aren't from here. A lot of my classmates occupy the same spaces as the gentry. But, I'm from here. The project took two strains. I was thinking about art history and iconoclasm. I was thinking about a trail of tears and contemplating a black version of the trail of tears and linking that form of displacement and colonialism. Then it took a personal route. The reason iconoclasm was so important was because I felt that there was this destruction of icons. I wanted to visually preserve them around the city. The other one was taking family photos and using them as a personal and intimate exploration of what my community means to me. They were photos of my mother and there is this feeling of displacement, that community does not exist anymore. And I was a house baby, so by the time I came of age to experience my community, that community no longer existed. That spurred my passion, it felt like a back to Africa moment. The Black Arts community is tight knit, it’s supportive, it’s kind, and it’s loving. Most of my opportunities have come from people saying “do this.” One of my friends put me onto a show and that opened up a lot of doors.
E: I'm going to go back to the wood aspect of your artwork, so I roll up to your studio and I see this wood structure in your studio. Memories are fleeting but I'm going to describe the feeling. It's as if my ancestors came through and said this was a very painful thing. I want you to talk about the transference of trauma and how you might be exploring that in your pieces and if you are? If you have left that behind.
L: This whole work is inspired by the shooting of Philando Castile and it was so traumatic because it was so vivid. He did everything he was supposed to do and the fact is, he was murdered. It kept circulating. It functioned as a lynching, and I was very vexed by it. This is public, so how do communities respond to this kind of trauma? What’s interesting is that they will put that on the news but they won’t show you the victim of something or the death of resistance. I started researching Joy DeGruy Leary’s Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. The pathology and systemology of slavery still affects us to this very day. I think the wall installation was almost a performance about cleanliness, cleanliness is a manifestation of traumatic work. When you think about pathology or systemology, it is neither bad nor good, it is both at the same time. Any cut you see on a tree is trauma. My work is an example of a pathological relationship with trauma, both good and bad. We come from a history of coerced and forced labor. So, how do I articulate that relationship. Not everybody has that history of having to work for someone. My grandmother's grandfather was one of the largest landowner in Louisiana. The reason we have to work is because we have to work in the context of white supremacy. My granddad understood, as a black person, you have to work twice as hard. And three times as hard to get ahead.
E: "Blood, Sweat and Tears and Artifacts of Labor" is the last piece I saw you make. You were showing that at Rush Arts Gallery. So, my question to you is, are you making anything else? I was talking to one of my professors and he was saying you don't always have to be in the studio. So are there any new ideas that are captivating your interest? Are you making anything in the same vein?
L: In terms of what I am working on right now, I think that time period is really important. I am just looking at the time from when I was in high school to where I am now. They said that at some point I would want to get rid of this work but I'm like nah I want to keep going. I'm taking the two strains of Artifacts of Labor and the Gentrification work and developing them out fully. I am thinking thematically about a series of work and dealing with ideas like the piece, Porch Girl. I am about to do some street work, like the pieces with Marion Barry. But on the other side, I am doing more tree sculptures. The work is so invigorating. So, really digging into the conceptual framework for what I am talking about. The paper I referenced earlier is the framework for my DC work.
Actually the piece you saw in my studio, was fields of color like paint pressed on these wood panels and then on top of that I was putting the nails, cotton, and twigs on top of the nails. I started that paint stuff from a subliminal message series in high school.
E: Yes Duke!
L: Duke is like my heart. I wouldn’t be the artist I am right now if it had not been for Duke. I was one of the kids who almost got put out.
E: Me too!
L: I was really close. In the past, we’ve talked about this idea of rising to the occasion. People would call it having a chip on your shoulder or having something to prove. Especially being at a school like Duke Ellington you are surrounded by so many talented artists and trying to get attention. I think that chip on my shoulder, trying to compete, trying to get attention, everything I'm not, made me everything I am.
E: That was my jam too! Kanye! Yes! I'm hip. In my class I was like you, right? I was talented but no one was checking for me because they already had the people in their mind who they believed were talented. So they weren't really checking for us but having that chip helps because especially being in the art world, you need to have a sense of bravado about you. This belief that you can succeed and that you can represent a culture but also that you can empower a culture.
L: It was really funny because even by the time I was about to finish, there were some things, I didn't understand until I left. It was almost like as though, I didn’t appreciate some of the things I was getting from them.
E: Like what?
L: Mr. Easton was really hard and I didn't feel the love. But, then it wasn’t until I left school that some of what he said stuck, I started hearing him in my head.
E: Me too!
L: Y’know what I'm saying? Hearing the voices of those teachers, that kind of thing helped me.
E: Duke was like this Black Mecca. We were all black in there! Talented and brilliant and all of our teachers were people of color. I want to get back to this idea of being an educator. I think that is a great segway because your high school experience shaped your work. We were both in the Masters of Art Teaching program and I am really interested in learning how has being an educator affected your work? If it's changing your work? And how do you still make work with all of that happening?
L: The times that I am working, I am dealing with these concepts. I'm like, OK bet, there are somethings that I am working on in my studio. I am teaching in my class. I am incorporating that into my lessons. I have had the opportunity to shape that into my own curriculum. Teaching something makes you think about something harder. If you can't break it down for a child to get it, you don't know it yourself.
E: Remember what Mr. E said?
So, Mr. E was like, "What you can't define, you can't fulfill." That's some real shit.
L: Yeah, it’s stuff like that. Their pieces of wisdom didn’t hit me until I left. And, now I'm an educator and now I understand them. It gives me an appreciation for them. All my life there was an educator that inspired me and I wouldn’t be the educator I am if it had not been for my 3rd grade art teacher, my junior high school teacher, and high school. I can’t ever doubt the significance of my third grade teacher or my junior high school teacher. They were all phases and steps in my evolution as an artist. That's what pushed me to become an educator.
E: You had some gems in there. You should write a book.
Check out the full series of Entanglements, here.