Artist Statement – Masud Olufani

What is Evidence

Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover
with make-up, a dark patch like the imprint
of a scope she’d pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she’d steady, leaning
into a pot of bones on the stove. Not
the teeth she wore in place of her own, or
the official document—its seal
and smeared signature—fading already,
the edges wearing. Not the tiny marker
with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
Only the landscape of her body—splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal—her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.

Natasha Trethewey

_____

Natasha Trethewey’s astonishing poem What is Evidence, renders the bruised, and broken body of her dead mother through allegory and metaphor. The victim of domestic abuse—which inevitably led to her death—the corporeal form of the poet’s dead mother becomes a landscape of the trauma visited upon it.  The writer traces the ‘evidence’ of historical violence in this cracked and battered frame. In this sense the body becomes the site of memory and meaning; of the before and the present moment—the conflation of then and now. 

I thought about Ms. Trethewey’s poem as I considered how to respond to the challenge of conceiving a temporary site specific sculpture which would integrate the truncated trees that once stood on the grounds of Howard Middle School.  I thought of the inextricable link between the body and the landscape it occupies—how time, events, and the generations that live through them bind the living to the dead.  

Amongst certain west African communities the griot, or keeper of memory, plays a central role as the stewards of the collective memory of the people.  They sort; codify, and transmit the historical archive. In some sense the felled trees of Howard Middle School—some of which have stood since the time of the Civil War–represent the griots of the community who bore witness to, and kept the “divergent inheritances of the past,” as Kimberly Juanita Brown writes in The Repeating Body. The removal of these silent archivists constitutes a loss for the community, but also the promise of rebirth, as seeds harvested from their decaying bodies can be planted, and the discarded form of the tree can be reimagined as art.  The renovation of the school also points to the intersection of past and future—rebirth, and renewal.  

 

photo credit: bahaiteachings.org

My vision for this work includes one of the larger trees with intact limbs.  I would like to lay it prostrate on the lawn, diagonally, with the branches pointing towards the school. The limbs would be carved into a series of hands based on those of the elders at the retirement community across the street. I would then rub powdered charcoal, and graphite into the surface to give it a dark, luminous affect.  The hands will be reaching towards the Howard school as though lamenting their removal, but also gesturing in the direction of revitalization. The conflation of loss and hope marks the intersectionality of the conflicting emotions that accompany the modernization of historic spaces. The tree carcass becomes an archetype of discarded memory, while the carved hands, emerging from the body of what is now considered obsolete, embody the boundless, transcendent nature of hope.                                          

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