Jessica Karuhanga is having a steady incline of a year. From getting the chance to be part of Archives Matter Conference at Goldsmiths in London UK to presenting work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, to getting the break to teach and share her knowledge on the very medium she's been thinking through over recent years at Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, University of Toronto, Karuhanga is a persistent force. Her performance-based works developed out of working through drawing and object-making which then led to installation-based work that would later implicate the body and in turn opening up possibilities for articulating her cultural histories, racial and gender identity. Karuhanga was nice enough to engage in a conversation with us where we talked among other topics, a bit about her intuition driven practice, what it means to see the black body in a carefree state, and why recognition is important to her.
"my practice is mostly intuitive. There is no pedagogy formally influencing or framing my practice. Some folks make this assumption because of how well I articulate myself. I resist containers or the notion that some institution produced me. You don’t get to claim me especially when you can’t hold space for my blackness. I just made it my job to know what was up. I had an incessant thirst. To read. To witness. To learn. To dig. It really was a kind of digging because I wasn’t seeing myself reflected."
Luther Konadu: How was your summer?
Jessica Karuhanga: I spent my summer working but also gave myself time to just lay in the sun on the beach and dance. Up until a month ago I spent nearly a decade (apart from breaks for school) working full-time at various cafes. Usually, all the extra morsels of space, when I was not sore or in my feels from hustling, goes toward my art practice and family. My summer ended with the opportunity to teach. It is still a very new feeling adjusting my movement and body to this mode. It is the first time in a long time where I won’t be struggling as much. I'm teaching performance art. I am relishing this moment.
LK: It sounds like you've had a busy year so far. How are you doing?
JK: I am tired. But, performing at Archives Matter Conference at Goldsmiths was definitely the highlight. I got to share this platform with brilliant artists like Lynnée Denise and Onyeka Igwe.
"Recognition is important to me. Let others know you see them. My point is that when I’ve done the labour of self-articulation and furthermore translating that back in some feedback loop I truly resent anyone trying to claim me."
LK: What new things have you learned through the year thus far that you think is seeping into how you think about your work?
JK: I am getting better at making gifs. I think this skill is seeping into my video collages.
A Still Cling To Fading Blossoms 2015 Documentation by Manolo Lugo
LK: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you do a lot of work through other mediums but it all seems to stem from performative based process. How do you think you arrived at utilizing your body to work through ideas you are interested in expressing and exploring? How did it begin to make sense as a way of creating…and what were your perceptions of performance before that?
JK: I arrived at performance through sculpture. I mostly played around with materials. A metal sponge became a skin. A boombox was both a sign and a readymade. Materials could be anything - a conversation, a flower, a gesture, a sound. I began consciously doing enactments for the camera. The first performance I witnessed in person was Rebecca Belmore’s “Gone Indian”. I was undone witnessing that work. Before this moment I had only really experienced performance as documentation or as enactments for the camera. My practice is mostly intuitive. There is no pedagogy formally influencing or framing my practice. Some folks make this assumption because of how well I articulate myself. I resist containers or the notion that some institution produced me. You don’t get to claim me especially when you can’t hold space for my blackness. I just made it my job to know what was up. I had an incessant thirst. To read. To witness. To learn. To dig. It really was a kind of digging because I wasn’t seeing myself reflected. I didn’t live in Toronto. I lived in small towns in Ontario and later on Vancouver Island. When I moved to Toronto I literally could count on a single hand the friends I had. I went to public lectures and discussions. Eventually, I felt less anonymous, less shy, less insecure. Recognition is important to me. Let others know you see them. My point is that when I’ve done the labour of self-articulation and furthermore translating that back in some feedback loop I truly resent anyone trying to claim me. Riffing off of this even though I didn’t know my Black Canadian Art history until my mid-twenties I am indebted to so many black women before me. It’s an immense privilege to live in Toronto where I can exist black and brown and queer in a way I cannot in other regional spaces. Canada is plagued with regionalism and there is an erasure of people of colour, indigenous and black folk in that. Canada is so fixated on the nuances of what a plaid shirt looks like and that is considered culture and diversity. I promise this is my only shady comment.
LK: Because performance-based work involves being utter vulnerability from the performer it becomes immediately bare for the audience, how do you personally handle that through your performances, especially as you perform from location to location, and audiences differ and the communities there differ and probably unfamiliar to yourself...and it looks like you've performed internationally too and this year alone you've participated in a number of performances...how do you navigate through all of that...
JK: I feel that each iteration of a performance is a new experience and no art experience or encounter is the same as the one before. This isn't limited or specific to ephemeral works. This is the same for a painting, sculpture, book, album or film you revisit. It isn't really repetition. A work just has to be honest for me. That way if I trip, mess up or derail it is never really a failure. I try to be generous but I’m also not about to give all of myself to an audience. They have to work as well. The honesty happens when you get lost in the work and its making. That's maybe the utter vulnerability you speak of.
LK: How does it also differ placing yourself in a more public space in comparison to the gallery space...
JK: Every iteration of a work is its own unique experience. Every experience is not for everyone. When you’re doing art in a public space it might look strange to pedestrians who not informed by art or theory. But, alternatively, theory can cloud or hinder an encounter. I’ve done my thing in an institution and felt alienated in my body. I remember practicing my movements outside a subway station where I was commissioned to do a work. I was stopped by cops and interrogated because they were “concerned for my safety”. I guess these anecdotes just affirm how safety is temporal.
Carefree, Fine and Mellow 2016 Documentation by Manolo Lugo
LK: Can you talk about the beginnings of Carefree, Fine and Mellow, what ideas you were thinking about going into it, how has the ideas developed or changed in the process of, and what are you learning about yourself and the process itself...
JK: This piece is a return to collage. It has become a series that considers the force of language in shaping our understandings of the world. I enact movements in response to videos archived through the hashtag #carefreeblackgirl or #carefreeblackboy. The project is an on-going exploration of how “carefreeness” is embodied, mirrored and performed. Our carefreeness, our magic, our excellence is something constantly challenged, thwarted, or denied. What I love most about sifting through this material is that black folk, especially femmes, can be doing the most regular or banal things and I find our movement mesmerizing. I become transfixed. I started to wonder what it would look like to show these archives but differently. To tweak the frame. What if these intimate videos became visual and sonic cues for a choreography?
LK: As a person of colour, how do you see your body as it is situated within the context of Canada... do you find it as being politicized (in certain contexts like in art) in comparison to people colour in America...
JK: Well because blackness isn’t monolithic these experiences invariably will be different. Growing up on the Canadian side of the border to the US most representations of black bodies were mediated through an American lens. Folks would make assumptions about my identity. Mix this with Canada’s ceaseless and willful erasure of black history here. I grew up trying to distance myself from this monolith. I didn’t have the tools to articulate why. But it wasn’t self-hate. I just felt very alone. I’m black, I am mixed, I’m Ugandan, I’m British, my great-grandmother was Roma. These have all shaped and informed my understanding of myself and my legacy. Everybody is politicized its just that white people have thought about it less. Blackness precedes all my other marks and I have no choice in this. I can never be just a person concerned with form. I’ll always be that black woman appearing to be concerned with form.
LK: What's your earliest memory of being aware of your identity as a person of colour as it relates to first Canada (and it's history), and North America?
JK: I think if you grow up here you always know. Many of my friends that moved here as young adults though distinctly remember a shift in self-awareness upon arriving here.
LK: Scanning through your Instagram acct, it looks like you read quite a bit of literature, your post that highlights a quote from Katherine McKittrick's text was especially an insightful one...are you still reading that text?
JK: I wrote an entry on my blog once that read, “My homeland is my body it is all that I know”. I was speaking to second generation woes where you feel like you are the embodiment of the split or border between multiple sites. Anyway, a childhood friend was like “How are you not reading Katherine McKittrick?” and then another friend was like, “Gurl, she was my professor in school! I’ll introduce you!” It's this thing where you think you are alone so you whisper these feelings deep into Tumblr void and it turns out someone has been doing this integral research on bodies and geography. You feel less alone. I’m reading that text and “Islands of Decolonial Love” by Leanne Simpson right now.
"Blackness precedes all my other marks and I have no choice in this. I can never be just a person concerned with form. I’ll always be that black women appearing to be concerned with form."
LK: Are you originally from Toronto? You've lived in London and BC, how would you compare the art scenes in those cities you've lived in?
JK: I have lived in Toronto for four years now. It is starting to feel small and intimate in similar ways to Victoria and London. It has that small-town vibe where everyone knows everyone and thinks they know everyone’s business. I mean the beautiful and bullshit ways. I live in a mostly Portuguese community. I love when it is football season even though I hate sports. I feel I have a community supporting me and this extends beyond the art scene. I have family here. I'm not sure where else in Canada I would want to live. Maybe the countryside where my aunt and uncle live.