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multicultural patterns

Interview by Jana Astanov.

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow (b. Manchester, Jamaica) holds a BFA with honors in Painting from New World School of the Arts, University of Florida and an MFA in Combined Media from Hunter College, CUNY. Lyn-Kee-Chow often explores performance and installation art drawing from the nostalgia of her homeland, Caribbean folklore, fantasy, consumerism, spirituality and nature’s ephemerality. Exhibitions of note include “Guangzhou Live 5”, Guangzhou, China (2014), “Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora”, Royal West Academy of England, Bristol, U.K. (2016), a special project commission at “Jamaica Biennial”, The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, J.A. (2017), and “Live Action 12” in Gothenburg, Sweden (2017).
Lyn-Kee-Chow’s work has garnered a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Award in Interdisciplinary Art (2012), Rema Hort Mann Artist in Community Engagement Award (2017), Franklin Furnace Fund (2017-18), and Culture Push’s Fellowship for Utopian Practice (2018). Reviews are included in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Diplomat, Daily Serving, Hyperallergic, and Artinfo. She lives and works in Queens, N.Y. Follow her on IG @lynkeeart or Twitter: @lynkeechow

3:AM: How did it all start? What led you to the path of becoming a performance artist?

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow: I was in 2nd grade in Jamaica. I remember being introduced to painting, and though it was probably tempera on newsprint paper I really enjoyed it. Also having my godfather as my art teacher in my primary school definitely nurtured my interest in art from an early age.

Fast forward to my final year of undergrad in Miami when I was in the art gallery and flipped through books where I first saw the works of Marina Abramovic, Chris Burdon, and Yayoi Kusama.  I had a realization at that moment. I had some guy friends who were willing to try some stuff out with video and that was how it started. The guys directed while I did all the actions, but I didn’t have full control of the situation. So I created my own props and performances for video and asked my girlfriends to document.

I’d already been performing for much longer though, putting the pieces together.  I had been dancing and acting since participating in elementary school plays in Jamaica.  And then I took up dance in my high school years with an all-girl dance team, performing in the color guard, and modeling in my teens.  And later in college, I even took up Afro-Caribbean, tap, and jazz dance.


“Crop Killa” (2010-2016), Performance at Royal West of England Academy 2016, Photo credit Alice Hendy, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, UK

3:AM: In what ways has your work evolved throughout your career?  Do you see periods when you were focused on a particular theme?

JL: From my early teens I was drawing and painting images I admired in fashion magazines. I guess I was examining these beauty ideals to some degree. I secretly wanted to be a model and fashion designer but at the time I had no patience to learn the skills of actually making clothes.

Then in art school I got into sculpture. I was collecting objects I found on the many construction sites by my parents’ house in Florida and combining them with fabric. Although they were extensions of my abstract paintings, I was more excited working with the actual material rather than painting itself. I was making enclosed cocoon-like structures for these little rusted objects. I wasn’t sure what I was exploring then but fabric continued to be in the work throughout graduate school. That’s when I incorporated the fabric onto the landscape, making work about domesticity, environmentalism, and consumption.

I’m still making work with these themes but lately it’s been more political and action-based.

“The Lost Tribe of Mount Madagascar” (2014), Performance at LUMEN Festival, Staten Island, NY. Photo credit D. Lagaccia, INCIDENT MAGAZINE

3:AM: In your practice you often refer to your roots as a Jamaican artist, how does your national identity inspire your work?

JL: Growing up in Jamaica I witnessed a lot of pride in our culture. Beginning with folklore, the pantomimes, TV shows with comedians, poets, storytellers, and musicians. There were ample displays of Jamaican dances and fashion whether traditional or contemporary. Having migrated to the US led me away from experiencing these displays as often, and has also caused me to reminisce. It’s out of nostalgia for my Jamaican culture that I re-imagine and create narratives.

3:AM: Your work is connected to current events and socially engaged causes how do you see the role of an artist in our politically charged times?

JL: I think the role of the artist is to point out what the viewer needs to see. This sometimes can be something disturbing, uncomfortable, thought provoking. The viewer should be left with something deeper to contemplate. I think the contemporary artist should find responsibility in creating a work that resonates with the viewer, be it for educational purposes; or maybe even to escape reality altogether.

3:AM: In one sentence how would you define your aesthetic?

JL: My work is multifaceted, sensual, and colorfully lush with a touch of politically charged mystery.

3:AM: This Fall we saw your work featured during Art in Odd Places festival. You performed a version of your Gypsy Picnic, called “The Picnic: Harvest of the Zephyr”. How did the title come about?

JL: I’ve changed the title from “The Gypsies’ Picnic” weeks before this particular performance to “The Picnic: Harvest of the Zephyr”.  Because of the politically charged moment where appropriation is being eyed closely, I feared being called out for using the term ‘Gypsies’. It wasn’t my intention to appropriate the Romani people or use the term derogatively. In fact after sending out my newsletter announcing the performance I was actually called out for it by an old classmate from grad school. I defended my reason for the term in saying that my Chinese tribe, the Hakka people were basically typecast as the gypsies of China for their being forced out of their territories in the north by famine and wars. They were a roaming nomadic group of people, as many other groups of people. So their forced migration story informed part of this original title.

In French the word “pique-nique” means to to “pick a place”.  I also researched the Egyptian picnic, Sham El-Nessim,  where they celebrated the taking in of the Zephyrs in an ancient festival tradition where Egyptians became Christianized. I realized the term ‘Zephyr’ is used to describe this tradition of taking in the Western winds. The Zephyr is also the lightweight (plaid, Gingham) cloth, which was used in the work as a material. Zephyr, is also a certain kind of vegetable, a squash. The opening of the train of my dress at the final destination and the gathering of people to eat fruit from other places was the highlight of this work.  I found it to be a great coincidence that it’s presentation was during the autumn, harvest time. All of this informed the very title of the work.


“Gypsies’ Picnic: The Veins of Oya was Always Here” (2014-15), Performance in “TBS04”, Boston, MA. 2016. Photo credit Vela Oma

3:AM: Can you please tell us about the concept and the process behind this complex project?  

JL: All of this somehow came together while I was putting together the proposal for the Art in Odd Places Festival that took place this past October along 14th Street, NYC. I proposed to do this action of walking the entire two miles of 14th Street from East to West to symbolize the very act of migrating. Though the recent political events draw attention to the wave of immigrants from the South, such as Mexico and Central America (anyone of darker complexion really), I wanted to create a utopian image as if we were a united family, looking different yet the same.   


“The Picnic: Harvest of the Zephyr” (2018), Performance during Art in Odd Places (AiOP) : 2018 BODY, New York, NY,  Photo credit Corey Folta

We brought local and imported fruit, and shared it with the public upon arrival at our final destination, 14th Street Park.  At first I was specifically looking for men of color to carry the train of the blanket but as I thought more about the topic of immigration, I decided to include people of every shade.  So there were eleven performers, nine men and two women. There wasn’t equal representation as far as gender but everyone in it, an immigrant or from an immigrant family was in the piece.  So I basically played the front of the boat, the bow, and the other female performer played the stern. Aside from our male drummer in the back of the structure, we paraded in the form of one mobile unit.  At times we looked like a rainbow dragon, or a boat crossing the street to a drumbeat.

The center of the boat from front to back was all played by people of African descent (including myself).  We were the only ones who wore the color red, the center focal point of the blanket. I can go on and on about the symbolism in the piece but that’s the gist of it.  I designed each of the costumes to hint at the heritage of the performer.

It’s also inspired by my Jamaican grandmothers. They were farmers, and hearing stories of traveling on foot for miles with their crops really inspired me. I imagined their strength and endurance. So I’ve incorporated this walking with the basket on my head as an action into my picnic performances.  The tablecloth/blanket became the ‘place’ where we could rest, feast on fruit, and congregate.


“The Picnic: Harvest of the Zephyr” (2018), Performance during Art in Odd Places (AiOP) : 2018 BODY, New York, NY,  Photo credit Miao Jiaxin

It was also commonplace to find those kitsch vinyl tablecloths in the countryside of Jamaica.  The décor I often saw in Jamaican homes in the 1980’s remained with me. It was an eclectic mix and match of Afrocentric art with Victorian influence, and tropical accents. Some items were beautifully handmade and some cheaply manufactured and supplied to us by Chinese-owned shops.  Here I am using all of these things in some form or another in my art practice.

So, I’ve had the idea for a large scale picnic blanket since 2009 but just haven’t had the opportunity to make it until recently. After proposing it to Franklin Furnace last year and having received the award to support the project, I created the picnic blanket out of forty-one vinyl tablecloths, the kind commonly found in 99-cent stores (though they cost about $4 a pop), and stitched them together using the ‘Around the World’ quilt pattern.  The sourcing of the cloths was a daunting task in itself. I had to scour many shops from all over NYC to find the exact colors and patterns I was looking for. This was very physical and time consuming. They could not easily be found online for a cheap price. The availability of some actually informed the composition of the squares. I thought of the Olympic flag with white background and the colored rings. There’s something about the visual balance in that flag that I like. It’s just iconic.

The size and shape of this work ended up being a 40’x40’ octagon.  Because of it’s scale I decided to have it documented by a drone photographer.  I am very happy with the result. It actually takes me back to memories of high school with the drill team, creating visuals with fabric, props, and action on the football field.


“The Picnic: Harvest of the Zephyr” (2018),  Photo credit Margeaux Walter

3:AM: Where we can see it next?

JL: As for future performances of this work, I am not sure. I’ve been asked to present it at another festival which could offer me Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Another curator is seeing if I can present it at a park in Manhattan. Though I’d love to perform it near the water in parks like Governors Island or Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park. Right now it’s too early to tell.  I’d like to eventually perform it worldwide though and hire performers from each city it’s presented in.

Do you have any mentors, artists you look up to?

JL: I can say my mentors are two professors from grad school at Hunter College, Nari Ward, and Juan Sanchez. Aside from them I look up to Beverly Semmes, Faith Ringold, and Christo & Jean Claude.

You are an interdisciplinary artist.  Aside from performance art, what are other mediums you work with?  

JL: Video, fiber, sculpture, sound art, watercolor, pencil, ink, social practice.


“Junkanooacome…At the Crossroads” (2018), Watercolor pencil, colored pencil on paper. Sketch for performance.


“8 Years to freedom” (2017), Mixed media installation with video and performance components. Special Project at Jamaica Biennial, The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, JA

3:AM: If you were to come up with a piece of wisdom for other women to include in their lives what that would be?

JL: I have three…

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Do something for feminism everyday. Be yourself.

3:AM: Do you consider your work feminist?

JL: Some, as not all my works are about feminism.

3:AM: As a character in art history, what impact do you think you’ve had? How have you changed the ways in which people look at art?

JL: I’m not so sure what impact I’ve had. I mean I had no Jamaican performance artists to look up to besides Grace Jones who is an entertainer, and a radical performer. She’s made an impact on me and so have American, European, Japanese performance artists.  So, in terms of this performance art canon it’s not a discipline that seems to be practiced much there, where I am from. So maybe doing performance art and also being Jamaican is my impact.

Here in the states I think I’ve noticed more young women, immigrant women, LGBTQ artists wanting to work with me whether it’s from where I teach, at School of Visual Arts MFA or to assist me in the studio. Some of my students are really engaged in performance and the fact that I’m performing ever so often and showing some of my process on Instagram maybe makes them more interested in learning about working sequentially or translating a concept or set image into live performance.

I think with this recent picnic performance I am getting somewhere.  It seems some people who are not from the art circles see my work and maybe it’s their first time being exposed to avant-garde performance art and they take interest.  Some of them actually get it and want to participate. Then once they experience it they never forget it.

3:AM: What’s next for Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow?

JL: Refocusing on life stuff while I work on a new collaboration for Culture Push Fellowship in Utopian Practice with my partner in crime, Kanene Holder. I’m also curating for Grace Exhibition Space this spring.  Meanwhile, there’s some interest on “The Picnic: Harvest of the Zephyr” and so I’m looking to see where else in the world to perform it. Maybe a solo show too.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Jana Astanov is a multidisciplinary artist, poetess and Priestess of Impermanence at Red Temple. Her work includes photography, poetry, performance and new media. She published three collections of poetry: Antidivine, Grimoire and Sublunar. She can be found here: website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 5th, 2019.