By MELANIE TORMOS, mixed media artist living in the East Bay. She is bushwacking her way through her first semester at CIIS as an MFA student in the Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts program.
This post was written as an assignment for professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091: MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
In the Interdisciplinary Arts program, I was recently asked to step out of my comfort zone (Land of Acrylic and Canvas) and delve into a medium foreign to me. I chose dance. Suddenly I found myself on YouTube watching an endless stream of videos featuring young men and women turfing, waacking, popping and locking. I attended Block By Block—part party, part performance—at the DeYoung Museum by Sean San Jose of Intersection For the Arts featuring Campo Santo, The Embodiment Project (fellow CIIS MFA student Nicole Klaymoon’s dance troupe), and other talented young MCs, DJs, and actors. And I uncovered the gem of Saul William’s 1996 SlamNation performance of his poem “Ohm.”
My choice is leading me to something important; to a new, powerful authenticity my artistic voice has been craving for a long time. During my undergrad years, as I struggled through recovery from a devastating eating disorder and suicidal depression, I realized my values and those of mainstream society didn’t vibe; consequently, I was institutionalized and medicated. I read about artists and visionaries with their own struggles—for recognition, acceptance, funding, an open ear and mind. Though I was any other suburban white girl to the eyes of outsiders, I felt I shared with these marginalized persons a passion for Truth.
I might have lived the hip-hop lifestyle as a creative, passionate woman with Puerto Rican roots had I not moved at a young age to the Southern California suburbs. It seems my parents chose the safety of the suburbs over the urban environment, but I wonder if I would have fared better in a tight-knit urban community like the ones in which my female cousins were raised. Growing up in Queens, they identify much more strongly with their Puerto Rican heritage even though, like me, they are half-Latina and half-European (they Irish-American, and I Slovakian-American). They are more outspoken and have a stronger sense of self (or it seems that way).
Maybe the trade-off is they both gave birth early, one at 16 and one at 21, and struggle to raise their daughters; but then I’ve had an abortion. Maybe fate also flies cross-country; maybe I am closer to my roots than I think. Maybe struggle connects us all.
My research brought me to Paris Is Burning, a documentary delving into the lives of Willy Ninja, Pepper Labeija, and others who gave birth to Ball culture and the voguing scene in New York in the late 1980s and early 90s. During interview scenes with young Italian-American transvestite Venus Xtravaganza, I am impressed with her eloquence and conviction expressed in a soft voice. She is fierce and free in spirit, with teased blonde locks and slender pale arms. I’m called to ask—What is Masculine? Feminine? Beauty? White? Black? Latina? What is “success” and who claims “power”? Who locks us into neat, tidy categories—and decides the rules? Most important, can we question the rules, even toss them out when they aren’t serving humankind?
My research seems even more relevant in light of the Occupy Movement rallying us to restore civilization to balance. It is street-smart, soul-based hip-hop artists who help keep the masses inspired and fired up, who will have their stories silenced or appropriated by the mainstream. As turfing founder and Oakland’s own Jeriel Bey writes, “Everyday people find themselves thinking that their condition makes their life, when really their Thinking makes the Condition.”