The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on the arts world, both locally and nationally. But with nearly half of D.C. residents fully vaccinated at the time of writing, and the city reopening in full on June 11, local creators can start to breathe a bit easier.
Writer and performer Fargo Tbakhi; performer, video artist and photographer Imogen-Blue Hinojosa; and multidisciplinary installation artist Jessica Valoris had plans for solo shows, collaborative short films and other artistic endeavors last year. Despite putting their creative pursuits on hold, the three artists recently landed fellowships with Halcyon Arts Lab, a wing of D.C. nonprofit Halcyon. The fellowship is “designed to provide support and resources to emerging artists working on projects which address issues of social justice, civic engagement and community building.”
Previously, Halcyon residencies spanned five months and ended in a capstone event. But during Covid, there was no grand finale. Opportunities to collaborate became harder and there was no occasion to show work publicly and feel the response of a live audience. And yet, in the stillness of the pandemic, they found new ways to focus their work.
The Exploration of Mixedness
For Valoris, whose work follows hours spent researching and reading about Black Fugitive Folklore, isolation was a boon. She even took a break from social media for last August to help focus. Her process starts by immersing herself in historical records and stories of fugitive slaves, as well as family lore.
While she was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, her family on her father’s side is from South Carolina and many of their ancestors were enslaved people. Family stories from the Jim Crow era are often heard in her sound collage work. The questions her research raises, and she brings to her artwork, are: What are we still running from today? And what are we running toward?
“I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do with it,” she says of Freedom on the Move, a database of records of Black fugitivity she uses in her research. “But it was clear there was something here that I needed to listen to.”
At Halcyon, her research led to handmade zines and a micro-paintings series, which render the information from wanted ads for fugitives from slavery into a cipher. A ring, for instance, might indicate they were married, or a certain number of moons might indicate when they escaped.
The ads were also a component of her most prominent work at Halcyon: a sukkah installation. A sukkah is a temporary, three-walled structure made for the Jewish holiday Sukkot, which commemorates the Israelites leaving Egypt and entering the desert. In her work, the sukkah provides a space for community members to ask what they want the future to look like.
The work also bridges the two sides of Valoris’ family: her father’s Black ancestors and her mother’s Jewish heritage. Her “mixedness,” she says, was one of the things she was running from. Seeing Sukkot as another celebration of fugitivity helped reconcile the two.
“Through this process, what I’m coming to is they chose to converge through me,” Valoris says. “There’s something in the way I’m practicing [art] that is medicine for the world I want to create.”
The Art of Unarchaeology
Tbakhi, an Arizona native now in D.C., also explores his roots in his work. Rather than unearthing stories, he buries them through what he calls “unarchaeology.”
“What is a way of thinking about art and storytelling that is the opposite of that?” he asks. “[I take] objects or stories that have already been dug up and narrated and put them back in
A queer Palestinian American, Tbakhi looks at Sirhan Sirhan (the Palestinian-born assassin of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy), his own background and that of his father in “My Father, My Martyr, and Me.” Without a stage during the pandemic, he still applied the same approach at Halcyon to writing and developing puppets for performances, which were inspired by Vermont-based theater company Bread & Puppet.
Although Tbakhi isn’t a trained visual artist, his puppets have a striking effect. One, a floating keffiyeh, or Arab headdress, for example, has a playful yet ghost-like quality. Another, with a totemic presence, is papier-mâché made from Trader Joe’s bags, and uses a device to pour sand out of its golden-brown mouth. Thus far, Tbakhi has used the puppets in film experiments and plans to use them onstage. Others, he says, just haven’t come to life yet.
As a part of his fellowship, Tbakhi wrote a series of poems beginning with the phrase “Palestine is a futurism.” The poems examine how a future right of return to Palestine involves a return to the past. Rather than have the poems available just online or in books, Tbakhi also printed them onto wood and cyanotype, the blue photographic negative used for household blueprints. There’s a poetic aspect to developing cyanotype, he finds, which requires exposure to sunlight and water to rinse off chemicals.
Reclaiming Space for Trans Bodies
Originally from Texas, Hinojosa hails most recently from Ireland, where she had a residency with A4 Sounds in Dublin. Her capstone work there, “Liturgia,” was a short film of a stage performance about a trans woman who has died and whose spirit has returned as a saint. She recounts her death, speaks about what precipitated it and performs a song. Stills from the shoot were later featured in the recent biannual issue of art zine Elephant Magazine. The work follows several years she spent researching the underreported death and murder of trans women.
“I wanted to create a vigil,” she says of the film, “that would create a response to this femicide and address the social media martyrdom of trans women [that only lasts] for a day or a week and then [disappears] completely from the world or people’s newsfeeds.”
Hinojosa came to Halcyon with a proposal to make a similar film in collaboration with local LGBTQ+ community center Casa Ruby. However, because of Covid, she had to change plans. She has been working on two films using the camera lens to reclaim space for the trans body. “Kameha-Mija!” uses the vernacular of music videos set in South London and “La Morena” challenges the white, cisgender elitism of a London club.
The locations for the two London films were places where Hinojosa experienced harassment while pursuing her Master of Fine Arts. By filming in a particular context, she says she is actively reclaiming the space. They’re both everyday spaces as well, reflecting her goal of showing how we all perform, or “drag ourselves,” daily. But in using tropes, like that of the music video, Hinojosa says she aims to make work that is accessible and widely shared.
At Halcyon, Hinojosa pivoted to a feature-length film, 30% of which is finished. Though she worries that finding funding post-pandemic will prove difficult, she sees potential for the work to become short films suited for galleries.
“[My work has] taken new forms,” she says. “In the end, it’ll be much easier to access.”
Embracing The Future
As the world continues to reopen, the artists have much on the horizon.
Hinojosa’s work was recently featured by the Kreeger Museum, and she also hints at an upcoming photography project involving national parks. Tbakhi will see a revival of his solo show at Mosaic Theater Company on H Street in the fall. He also received a fellowship from Rhizome DC, an arts center in Takoma. Valoris is working on another sukkah installation project as part of the Public Interest Design LAB fellowship with the Goethe-Institut and the DC Public Library. The work, she says, will also highlight the history of Black fugitivity in D.C.
Each of these artists’ work provides the kind of medicine we all need to try to recover emotionally and artistically from the pandemic. Hopefully, after a tough year for the arts, they will continue to have opportunities to share their work.
“Whenever we create something, it will always need to be innovated,” Valoris says. “It will always need an ability to stretch and include everyone.”
Check out www.jessicavaloris.com for details about Valoris’ upcoming ritual performance and artist talk, “Ode to Zipporah,” at the Kreeger Museum and follow her on Instagram @jessicavaloris for more about her monthly artist talks on Instagram Live, “Art Talks and Tangents.”
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.