Material Reality

Material Reality

“The category of Material Reality responds to the artistic use of the physical and aesthetic dimension of choosing and selecting, which demonstrates images as affluences of the status quo. The work reveals social-economic relationships in an evolving and reactive New York.”

Interview with Iona Rozeal Brown:

born 1966 in Washington, DC, lives and works in Chillum, MD

“I left DC in 1996 and went to Pratt in Brooklyn for a year, and from there transferred to San Francisco Art Institute, where I got my BFA. I stayed around for another year. I actually went to Skowhegan for the summer after I graduated and then in 2000 I moved back to DC for the spring and then went to Yale. I got out of there in 2002 and then went back to DC to stay there. I went back kicking and screaming – I really didn't want to go back but I’m glad I did.”

IRB: What’s really interesting is being in another country and seeing how hip-hop is worn. It makes you wonder: who is putting this out here? Because there were a lot of the commercial gestures, a lot of the hats on the side, the swaggers, the crotch grabbing and the rubbing and the claiming to be from a particular “field”, if you will. And then there were the underground hip-hop heads, which are the ones that I hung out with and spent my time with, and there was a lot of overlap in their very early influences, and it made me wonder. There is an element of Japanese theater called the Kogan. I’m not sure if you are familiar with it, but in the puppet theatres in the Kabuki and Bunraku they use images in black, which is the color of invisibility in Japanese theater. It means that you know the images are there, but you don’t really see them. And so for me, commercial hip-hop tends to be run by people that I can’t see, but that I know are there. Somebody else’s fantasies are there, somebody else wants to see black bodies gyrating. I love Black women, I think our bodies are beautiful – and Lord knows I grew up with no Beyoncé or anyone like that, I grew up with Farrah Fawcett and Charlie’s Angels, and nobody that I could relate to. So on the one hand I’m excited because at least young Black girls have other Black women to look up to and emulate. If they’re going to have an ideal sexy body it’s not necessarily going to be Twiggy. But it seems that there’s a sort of threshold that has been crossed after which it becomes more exploitation than anything else, and that’s where I tend to have some problems with it. I go to another country and because I don’t look anything like any of the women in the videos, no one knows how to deal with me, no one knows where to put “big Black girl with the big afro” because I don’t look like anybody they’ve seen before. Or somebody might come up to me and expect me to dance in a particular way that they’ve seen on a video, though that happens a lot here as well as in Japan. But I think there’s a certain level of social responsibility, as Michael Eric Dyson calls it – and he is an educator so you have to ask: are you being too much of an educator? Are you being too much of an elder? When you start talking to the youth and looking at an art form such as hip-hop, are you are letting a prudish side take over and not realizing exactly what we have here? I kind of go back and forth about that. Some days I confess I feel very justified and self-righteous. And on other days I can see where they’re coming from because as I said, I grew up with hip-hop so I have a lot of experience of hearing the rhymes and the stories that are being told. There wasn’t so much of it back then. You had a choice, you could go from that to KRS-One or something like that, there was more involvement: it felt more community-based, it felt more about the art itself, but back then no one was getting paid. So there is that strange sort of Catch-22. It seems as if the rules may have been rewritten to say OK, if you want to make a living out of this art form, then this is how you have to do it.

Excerpted from an interview conducted by Shaheen Merali in New York, December 2006.