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TV for Untold Stories

Visit the MCA from wherever you are in this Tour Video Series dedicated to discovering more about the world, our communities, and ourselves through contemporary art.


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In this episode, we’ll talk about art that tells people’s stories and artists who find wisdom in the stories of others.


JADA: Welcome to the MCA. I’m Jada, and I’ll be your host today. In this episode, we’ll talk about art that tells people’s stories and artists who find wisdom in the stories of others. Look for ways intimate personal stories teach broader truths about the world. The art you’ll see in this video is contemporary art. Saying art is contemporary just means that it was made recently in our time. Old historical art is special and important because through it, we can learn about the past. But the art of our time is just as important because it can help us see the present in new ways. One of the early patrons of this museum, Gerald S. Elliot, said of contemporary art, what attracts me is a certain awesomeness and presence which relates to the spirit of our time to the human condition, the ups the downs, the disruption, the chaos, the ambivalence. We’ll be approaching art that way— not by trying to dig into its history or the biography of the artists, instead we’ll look for ways the art can inspire us to engage with ourselves one another in the world we share.


JADA: We are in a dark small room with eight large speakers playing this emotional and enveloping Punjabi folk song. The central focus is a series of letters, just paper from a typewriter, backlit from a light table. This is an artwork by Bani Abidi called Memorial to Lost Words. Bani didn’t write these letters. She found them in a historical archive. Each letter is from a different individual writing home from the First World War. The authors are Indian soldiers, more than a million of whom were conscripted to fight for the British crown. Bani didn’t write the music either. The song playing in this gallery includes lyrics from a traditional Punjabi folk song and a poem written by Amarjit Chandan.

MAN: 29th January, 1915. (Urdu) Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata about our forefathers— a wounded Punjabi Rajput to a relative.

JADA: But these letters never made it home. They were censored and never reached India. And in fact, the history of these soldiers remains largely neglected. Why do you think Bani Abidi brought these letters and music together in this way? When I read these letters I try to pay attention to who was being written to and remember that it could have been the very last letter these soldiers ever wrote. Imagining the families and friends of soldiers helps me to see a very human story in a very inhuman situation. Those that really stick with me are a little poetic and a little absurd. One is responding to a request for money, and the soldier offers to send all he has— the skin on his body. He says, if you want that also, say the word, and you’ll have it taken off and sent to you by parcel. Another makes a desperately urgent plan to package and receive a flute, an item that would somehow sustain him through this hardship. Do you have things like that, small things or unlikely things that would sustain you? Tell someone about it. Share what might bring you a sense of home or resolve during trying times, if only for a moment.


I’m standing in a dark gallery now. The room inside is dark except for three distinct areas. In each area, there is a tiny black and white photograph about the size of a passport photo illuminated by several bright spotlights on stands. The photographs show portraits of different women. These are artworks by Alfredo Jaar called 100 Women. Alfredo didn’t take these photos. He found them mostly from press clippings. He’s researching extraordinary stories of extraordinary women doing extraordinary work. There are just three here, but the whole series is meant to grow to actually be 100. Although he recognizes it as a never ending project giving accomplished women the recognition they deserve. I didn’t know their stories when I first walked in though. I just saw ordinary looking women and I thought, good, we can honor these women for just existing. There’s little representation of that— of holding space for women to just be without needing justification. But there’s also little representation in mainstream media even of these exceptional women and their exceptional deeds. Shada Nasser is the first woman Yemeni lawyer. Nawal El Saadawi was a feminist author and activist. Camila Vallejo is a Chilean politician and former student leader. Why do you think Alfredo Jaar decided to present these photographs like this? They’re in the spotlight, literally, but they’re also small and sort of isolated. Highlighting their stories in a museum is clearly a way to honor and celebrate them. But the huge amount of light on these tiny photographs— it’s a lot? Have you ever felt under-recognized for your work? Or maybe you were recognized, but then had to bear the weight of that attention. Has anyone ever asked you to hold the spotlight for others like you?


We’re now in a large gallery with a video projected onto the wall. The video shows an indigenous young adult with long, dark hair. At different parts of the video, she’s wearing different casual clothes. And she’s always amidst the scenic landscapes of the Dakotas— grassy plains with mountains in the background, a placid lake surrounded by rocky cliffs, serpentine rivers. This is Tokata Iron Eyes and this video is an artwork by Andrea Bowers called My Name Means Future. Bowers made this video in collaboration with Tokata who has been involved with the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline since its inception. She’s 16 years old in this video and has been an activist since the age of 9. Over 4 days in 2019, Tokata, Bowers, and a small group of friends, all artists and activists, traveled together through several sacred sites around South Dakota. In this video, Tokata tells her story which is at once the story of this land, her ancestors, and her own experiences.

TOKATA IRON EYES: We are at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in Wounded Knee in South Dakota. On December 29th, 1890, 300 plus men, women, and children were massacred here, and I come from the survivors of that massacre. We had ancestors. We had ancestors who were resisting. And those ancestors are now buried in a mass grave right behind us. It’s actually a really crazy story because we wouldn’t have survived as a family if it wasn’t for one baby. And no one really knows how he survived the massacre because every other person who was with him— they died. And somehow he ended up being adopted into another family, and they took care of him until he was older. And that’s my great great grandfather now.

JADA: History can seem like a faraway story. Even though Tokata’s story is special, we’re all deeply connected to the past and the land we live on. It’s not all so far away. The echoes of the past resonate in our everyday experiences of one another.

TOKATA IRON EYES: Sometimes, when I close my eyes, or even when I just think about it, I realize I don’t think that I’m OK. It’s because the things that I am forced to bear witness to are not OK. As a child in America, I have watched discrimination in action before I knew how to say that word. I’ve been called racial slurs before I even knew what they meant. And I’ve seen corruption in my schools and in my city. It’s when my teachers leave for better paying jobs, and when our relatives leave because they can no longer bear to live here. I guess you could say it’s because we don’t live here. We survive. The dreams our ancestors had of a better future for our children rests in the palm of our hands. And yet we cannot seem to grasp it. I wonder if anyone else finds it hard to breathe the air here. Can they too feel the endless sense of longing and the mistaken sense of hope? The air here is thick with it, and still I wonder why I cannot breathe. I watch as my peers are shot in our schools, killed literally while learning how to live. I watch as their families are being torn apart. And I watch as we are massacred in the streets for the color of our skin. I watch as our mothers are assaulted on the trip home from work, and I watch as my sisters are raped by old men who have probably been assaulted themselves. I watch as my aunties go missing year after year. They are taking away my everything. How much longer until there is nothing left? I wish I could close my eyes and see flowers and sunlight and rainbows. I close my eyes, and I am so struck by my own memories that I could choke. I feel like I live with a constant lump in my throat. I am always on the verge of tears, even at my happiest. The things I’ve seen, the things I know, the things I remember— they are still happening. And that is why I cannot breathe. I don’t want to watch anymore. I will not watch anymore. I am going to help my people, even if it means I will never breathe easy.

JADA: In all of these artworks, I can’t help but see that there’s consideration of people just being human. Dehumanization, I guess, is the other end of it. In Memorial to Lost Words, those soldiers weren’t even fighting for their own people. Someone saw them as disposable weapons. But the artists helped us to see their wisdom, their irreplaceable humanity. In 100 Women, the women were so small, not being seen even though their accomplishments are monumental. The artist try to give them the spotlight they deserved. And Tokata talked about the way the Indigenous people sometimes aren’t even respected as individuals. Highlighting these stories individually doesn’t just repeat stories of oppression and all the bad things. It shows how similar experiences are also very different from one another. There’s no totalizing truth. Each and every person’s unique experience of the world should be honored. We can only find wisdom in one another.


ÁNGELINA COFER: Hi. My name is Ángelina Cofer. I am the Teen Creative Agency apprentice. And I’m here with Leah Gipson, A Long Walk Home artist co-creator and board member who has worked on the Black Girlhood Altar and most of the space that is in the Andrea Bowers show. And we are sitting in a really kind of like sunset yellow room with a beautiful mirror behind us, and we’re going to talk about the Black Girlhood Altar and the Andrea Bowers space. Hi. How are you?

LEAH GIPSON: I’m good. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be talking with you because you’ve had such a huge role in this project.

ÁNGELINA COFER: Well, thank you. I think that I’m happy we got to do this together considering our relationship together.


ÁNGELINA COFER: So what is A Long Walk Home and the work you guys do?

LEAH GIPSON: You are part of A Long Walk Home. We’re both a part of A Long Walk Home in different ways and at different moments. The best way to describe A Long Walk Home and the work that we do is that we use art to end violence against women and girls. We’re a national nonprofit organization. We have programs that work with girls and with college campuses. So of course, your relationship to A Long Walk Home. When did you start with—

ÁNGELINA COFER: I started my eighth grade year. So 2017?


ÁNGELINA COFER: Yeah, I’ve been with them ever since. So can you tell me more about the creation of the Black Girlhood Altar?

LEAH GIPSON: When I think about this project, I think about how girls like you with Girlfriends Leadership Institute have helped us for a long time bring attention to Rekia Boyd and Rekia Boyd’s life. I think that the work that happened at Douglas Park and continues to happen in the visibility work where we show photography that Girlfriends have made and have been working on temporary monuments for some time just to honor Rekia— the Black Girlhood Altar comes out of that practice, right, of working with you all. And so the Black Girlhood Altar— it’s a monument and a memorial. So it’s a monument to Black girls and their leadership. And it’s also a call to action for missing Black girls. And it’s a memorial for Black girls who’ve been murdered. So it holds a lot. And it’s a collaborative piece, a temporary site that we’ve installed in multiple places throughout the city. What has come out of working with A Long Walk Home has been to really take seriously how Black girls see the world. So I’m sitting here with you. And part of how we get to the Black Girlhood Altar is because your vision and your way of seeing what’s important now, what’s relevant now for us to pay attention to as artists is how we get to the Black Girlhood Altar installations. So thank you.

ÁNGELINA COFER: Oh, thank you. Thank you for thanking me. I think that A Long Walk Home is just such a magical space that allows young Black women and girls to just be and to be creative. And it’s beautiful to see that represented in the altar. Do you have your own altar at home or like—

LEAH GIPSON: I do, yeah. I think altar making as a practice became something I grew more interested in through my work with A Long Walk Home as a way of dealing with loss, a practice of mourning, but also a practice of setting and creating intention for myself, like a moment to reflect and to contemplate. So I think the altar is both things, right? It’s about the living, it’s about that moment of pause and reflection, and it’s also about memory, I think just reading our activism and our art in the power of ancestors that can sort of agitate and enliven the work that we do.

ÁNGELINA COFER: As we are both wearing the color blue—


ÁNGELINA COFER: —I wanted to know why the color blue.

LEAH GIPSON: The altar practice is also a part of a number of religious practices. But we’re including an African traditional spirituality as a part of both the aesthetics and the politics of this work, right, to include African traditional spirituality as how we understand what takes place at the altar. And so the color blue references Yemọja, and we were very intentional in wanting to invite Yemọja into the work. And so there are different moments where you’ll see the color blue or will wear the color blue just to sort invite this Yoruba orisha into our practice and to support what we’re ultimately trying to do, which is to create a space for Black girls to be loved and held and to move forward the abolitionist freedom work that Black girls are doing.

ÁNGELINA COFER: As we’re talking about girlhood and stories, I wanted to know your favorite childhood story.

LEAH GIPSON: Ooh. This is a story that I don't actually have my own memory of, but in thinking about how stories can live in all of these different ways or live beyond you and are shared like in a kind of oral tradition. This is the story that my mother told me about myself. And she told me that-- I was probably-- had to be maybe around kindergarten. I was learning to read. And so she had made me a cup of tea. Who knows what it actually was? But you know, like little tea cup. We were having tea together. She says that I was reading my little book. My mom was a librarian. So that's also kind of love for the archive. And so I'm reading my book, and I look at her. I stop and I say, we should just drink tea and read books all day. [LAUGHTER]

ÁNGELINA COFER: I love that. I feel like that’s what we should do just all day—

LEAH GIPSON: Drink tea, read books.

ÁNGELINA COFER: So relaxing, so educational. I love that. [LAUGHTER] Thinking about these moments as stories, how do we center or continue to center Black stories?

LEAH GIPSON: I think paying attention, seeking out the stories is so— it’s just so vital, right, to, I think, whatever practice it is that you want to contribute to. The racial justice and gender-based violence movement is really making a point to pay attention, I think, because the stories are all around us. And it’s not as if those voices aren’t speaking and doing the work the labor to bring that representation to the forefront. It’s a matter of listening and paying attention.

ÁNGELINA COFER: And for my last question, I figured— I think you might know what it is. But what do you wish for Black girls?

LEAH GIPSON: Yes. I love that question. I wish for Black girls to be able to drink tea and read books all day, right, for just like a break, for a break from it all and the freedom to just choose what you’re going to do with your time and how you’re going to shape your community in a way that you’re able to participate and just enjoy life.


LEAH GIPSON: Thank you for having me.


JADA: Thanks for watching this episode at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. I hope you found some inspiration and were able to connect to these works of art in new ways. Thanks to Ángelina and Leah for talking with one another. For more information about A Long Walk Home you can visit alongwalkhome.org. The MCA is always free for people 18 and under, students, and teachers. For more activities and experiences or for more information about the MCA’s learning programs, just visit mcachicago.org/learn.



Want to learn more about the artworks, activities, and themes in this episode? Download the TV for Untold Stories Guide.