15 March 2009

Interview: Naima Lowe

I am lucky in that I am part of an incredible community of politicised and smart fat people. This is no accident, I am interested in building and being a part of radical fat communities because, what can I say, these are the people who sustain and support me in many different ways, and I love them.

So I want to pay tribute to some of the radical fatties in my life for whom fatness is a significant part of who they are, what they put out into the world, how they see things. Here begins an occasional interview series.

Naima Lowe currently lives in Philadelphia and she makes stuff, art mostly. I'm not going to say too much else as an introduction because I think her own words shine out clearly, suffice to say: she is RAD. I love her, and I hope you do too.

I read some of your films, and maybe performance too, as being about examining hidden African-American history, and I'd like to know why that could be a focus for you.

It's interesting that you'd see my work as being focused on hidden African-American history. The stories that underpin my film, Birthmarks, about my dad and the 1967 Newark Riots, feel so un-hidden to me, so much a part of the fabric of how I've grown up. African-American art and music and history were pretty essential in my home growing up, and it doesn't surprise me that I've ended up interested in these stories as an adult. I suppose the story of Mary Fields, or Stagecoach Mary (a Black Cowgirl that I'm doing a long performance/film/installation about) is something more hidden... But the connection I see between all the projects is with mythologies and collective memory. I'm fascinated by the fact that I (along with many other people) have an appreciation for moments in history like the Civil Rights Movement because they are so important to our lives and identities, but we don't have any direct personal contact with those time periods. What does it do to our consciousness to be attached yet detached to something so important?

I love the way you do collaborative work, and the ways in which you involve your family in your work. Could you say a bit about that please?

Yes, it is true. I collaborate on almost all of my work. In fact, it has gotten so that anything that I don't collaborate on feels somehow hollow. Part of the reason that I collaborate is pragmatic. Having other people to be accountable to means that I'm more likely to get shit done. I also really believe in the aesthetic and political complexity that can come out of collaboration. I've found that by listening the other people as they go through a process of trying to understand something challenging (racial injustice, fatphobia, identity crisis, whatever else) I am able to see the nuances of my own struggles more clearly, and I allow myself to go places I might not otherwise go.

Could you tell me a story about what it's like being a fat, black, woman, femme, queer, activist, filmmaker (please rearrange and re-edit those identifiers, I'm merely taking a guess) in the academy?

Hmmm, I'll tell you when I get there! To the academy, I mean. I'm only sort of joking. As in, I studied and got an MFA in Film and Media, and now I'm trying to get a full time teaching job so that I can be fully instutionalised by academia. This is something that I really want for myself, and it is something that sort of freaks me out.

My father is an academic, and he's struggled in many ways with reconciling all the complicated parts of his being in this sort of weird parallel universe. So this is a world that I grew up around. I really really respect and love this particular cultural industry, because on a fundamental level academia values exploration and invests resources in nerdiness. It is also all about gate-keeping, hierarchies, and setting standards and canons and value systems that so many of us are beholden to. Sooooo, in terms of those aspects of my identity, I don't know.

Sometimes I feel really validated as a complex thinker in academia, which I'm excited for. Being black and a woman and a queer and a fat person feels ok in academia, because we do have some tools for talking about those identities... as long as you don't expect to see yourself represented in very many upper management type of positions, but that's no different than anywhere else.

Being an artist is weird in academia because we're valued, but in some ways as these strangely incoherent cousins who add flavour to the family, but are ultimately asked to sit at the side table. It's weird to bitch about money, because being an academic is such a privileged position, BUT, artists tend to get paid the least in academia, and get the least access to research equipment and funding. As I'm really coming into myself as an artist, I'm learning to see how fucked-up that is.

If I had a university and if I said, "Hey Naima, please come and teach these people about who you are and what you do," what would the first semester curriculum look like?

This is a fun question, and something I've been thinking about a lot because I'm applying to all of these academic jobs. I'd probably do a class on collaboration and artistic process in which we looked at various models of creative collaboration and formed some of our own in order to make projects. I've also been developing this whole concept of personal mythologies and personal pantheons as a way of generating exciting creative projects that are both autobiographical and broadly relevant. I'd also really love to a course on the history of image-making technologies and how they've impacted and been impacted by evolving models of cultural production.

What's up with the Nolose film?

Good question... I'm actually having a really hard time with it. I realised today while talking with a friend of mine that this is the first time that I've started a creative project with a direct political impetus behind it, and it sort of freaks me out. That is to say, most of my work has some sort of political implication, but they come more out of my personal connection to a subject, rather than a desire to explore or depict a political movement as this one has. I know that I'll never be someone who creates especially polemical work, and it sort of freaks me out that people might expect that out of me with this film.

I'm also realising that in order to for me to make the film about fat activism that I'd want to make, it's going to have to become bigger, more collaborative, and more complex, even though I'm not sure that I'm ready to take on another big film project, especially since my current creative sensibilities are leading me more towards performance and interactivity, and working with my body in really direct ways. Another project that I'm working on, called "Richard Simmons Til You Die" is an example of this. The basic premise of the project is that I have this Richard Simmons VHS tape from 1994, and I intend on playing the tape and doing the routines over and over until I literally kill the tape. And I'm getting other people to do this with me. My vision is of having massive numbers of fatties angrily doing those super gay aerobics moves in fabulous outfits.

Tell me about your favourite onscreen depictions of fat people.

Um, I'm not sure. I mean, I guess I'll always love Divine because she was so trashy and subversive and weird. And I like to watch anything that Mo'Nique does, because I think that she's a really positive fat person in a mainstream sort of way. She has also openly talked about being sex-positive and polyamorous, which is really amazing to see/hear out of a black, American, fat woman. I really loved Jack Black in Be Kind Rewind because his character was so funny and physical and sweet and ridiculous.



Anonymous said...

Great interview, and I love getting a chance to know more about Naima Lowe's work.

KathyB said...

Yes, Charlotte -- I love Naima too! :)) I'm so happy you're doing this interview series!