a conversation with Onajide Shabaka
"Performative action 02_16 (with shells)" (Greynolds Park west) archival pigment print (c) 2005-2012

Onajide Shabaka’s art form is a short journey made by walking in the landscape. The evolution of this may be developed as follows: the artist goes for a walk, in the New Mexico desert, the tall trees of Oregon, the lakes of Minnesota, in a Florida swamp, for a day, or several days. During the course of the walk he may take one or more photographs, make a drawing, pick up some stones, seeds or twigs. These may be brought back to the studio and photographed, and may be published or exhibited as evidence of the performative artwork. These objects and the experience also provide germination for further research and knowledge.

Eddie Arroyo

I was fortunate to document the Dirt Yuta Suelo Udongo Tè which was a group exhibition exploring notions of time and place. Specifically chosen was a dialog between materials gathered from Minnesota and linguistic references English, Talaandig (Philipines), Spanish, Kiswahili, and Kreole (Haiti). How has Dirt as a conversation continued in this particular exhibition at Florida Atlantic University (FAU)?

Onajide Shabaka

The exhibition concept initiated in the Vermilion Iron Range, Superior National Forest, upper Minnesota. For me personally, the material I gathered in Minnesota has become a much more integral part of my art practice as I used that “raw pigment” more and more. In terms of the exhibition, with a couple of additional artists included at FAU, I have expanded visually what has always been part of the multi-layered conversation. Dirt, can be such an important part of our lives that we kind of don’t see it, yet it manifests itself in many ways. I would like to think that dirt will continue to be in our ongoing dialog.

The “raw pigment” chosen for DIRT is not one I had seen in Florida. What are one of the ways you feel dirt manifests itself in our ongoing dialog?

The specific pigment you’re speaking of came from the Vermilion Iron Range of northern Minnesota. Since iron ore mining is still going on there we can follow the current taconite mining across Lake Superior to be smelted, made into automobiles, and other steel machines that travel, or shipped all around the world. Even though the iron ore extraction is nothing like it used to be, it is still taking place and making it into the economy.

Pigments used in paints come from ground up rocks of various types. Since Florida’s ecology doesn’t support those types of rocks, solutions can be made from other types of organic materials, natural and imported (speaking here of indigenous and precolumbian peoples). One other source of “dirt” comes to Florida across the Atlantic trade winds in the form of dust blown from the Sahara desert. This dust is what provides some of the color of our dramatic dawn and dusk skies.

Mining is not an industry Florida supports for ecological reasons, however, Fracking seems to be gaining momentum in terms of drilling in Big Cypress which is close to the Everglades National Park. Do you see analogies in reference to the pigments in Minnesota to what ecological material may be produced from the oil industry in Florida?

Iron ore mining is not an industry in Florida but limestone mining is. Florida ranks fifth in the nation with an industrial mineral production value of $1.92 billion. Mined in Florida are: limestone, sand and gravel, clay, phosphate, peat, and heavy minerals including ilmenite, rutile, zircon, and leucoxene. Ilmenite and rutile are primary ingredients in the manufacture of titanium dioxide pigments, used in the manufacture of paint, varnish and lacquers, plastics, and paper.

Fracking possibilities in Big Cypress, which is Federal land, is problematic in Florida with the porous limestone and our water shed which provides drinking water, industrial water and is, what is, south Florida and the Everglades (including Big Cypress). I suspect it is more likely to create dye solutions from natural materials in regard to my project. I’m just thinking about the experimental nature of what Florida has to offer.

That’s the thing, your practice is focused on living and experimenting with nature, in the theoretical framework of “Dirt”. Much of these notions has been bred out of me by design which includes much of the urban population. There was an unease when I recently walked along the Everglades, something unfamiliar and foreign, then odd pockets of calm at Long Pine Key. I found the exhibition is inviting its audience to explore these notions.

Industry will continue to be a presence in terms of extracting natural materials as well. Its why I ask about this component in your work with regard to Florida and Minnesota. In what ways is “Dirt” and to an extent your work speaking to this ongoing reality?

If I’m understanding the question about my relationship to the outdoors it is a relationship I choose to develop. Yes, we (my family) went camping in both tents and cabins. Have my brother or sister returned to that activity as adults? No.

I wasn’t thinking of the outdoors environment as an activist but as a seeker. A seeker of inner spirituality. A personal journey. That may be one reason my art practice hasn’t been recognized as I feel it should. But then, very few are on spiritual journeys and even fewer are rewarded along that path.

It’s not just the dirt but the botanicals as well that allude to the spiritual realm.

So history wrapped up with the site specific, the natural environment as a sacred space, seem to define my art practice in important ways at this moment. It certainly was my experience in the Everglades. I am currently building this Everglades body of work although it’s taking more time than I would have liked. I was just so full of information and living there for a month was a bit intense. It sparked a powerful, visceral, and enlightening moment that is still expanding. Sometimes I want to cry it is so intense. I feel and hear and it’s like a deep wound that needs healing, both within myself and this external place which we call the wilderness.

Total Disappearance, 1905 (film still) archival pigment print (c) 2011

One of the artifacts you produced through the journey was a video piece titled “Total Disappearance 1905” and was struck by its mythos in relation to a specific event in South Florida. I found it fascinating because your narration through this metaphysical event was archival and described as a matter of fact. Was that the first time you integrated such an approach in your work?

I don’t think so but probably the only work catalog documented is from the exhibition, “Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic.” Those pieces were photographs and metaphysical but not narrated as such.

There’s also documentation with two separate narratives from a Kickstarter funded residency project again focused on St. Lucie County. It focuses on a Bahamian woman (of whom I did a large drawing, “High Yella HooDoo Woman”) and a man that encounters some of her activities in an extended piece of multimedia, film and installation. Without financial resources it takes longer than desired to complete. The other is a photographic diptych regarding a naked black male found in the swamp undergrowth named and titled, “Bill ‘Blackjack’ Horton,” but it might be visually read as beautiful Florida landscape. It’s not. It’s historical fiction. Both of them are. I’m allowed to take such liberties.

Tell be about your process in the “Bill ‘Blackjack’ Horton” project. This is more a question in reference of how you felt going through that specific part of South Florida history.

It comes from the same place as “Total Disappearance 1905.” I have an archive of documents from my deceased family that was living in St. Lucie County. The life of African Americans in the US has been wrought with massive omissions of justice, crooked laws, and nepotism. That’s not just a Florida thing. I am interested in the reality of the lives of people that were living in Florida, with all the things that they had to live through while at the same time trying to preserve their dignity and make a living and a life.

Archives of Onajide Shabaka work can be found at www.art3st.com