Today at the doctor's the PA said, you'll need about three or four months to recover; that's not really a lot of time, and I replied, yes it is. Someone died the other day--they were 71, and I thought, that's six years away for me. Imagine if you were told you were going to prison for six years. Imagine you were told you only had six more years to live. Covid-19, for me, made time very important. Now it might be two years before I can visit the Musee de Cluny again. See Barcelona. See Chaco. Hike the West Highland Way. And in those two years, who knows what may happen...to me...to things. For a claustrophobic, when your world locks down, when it closes in, in any way, it affects you. It affects your breathing.
Three months ago, when Covid-19 became a real thing and anyone who had paid the least bit of attention in high school science class knew exactly what we were in for, the first thing I thought to jettison was achievement. Suddenly, my ego-driven desire for attention didn't seem all that important. I actually unfriended a bunch of people on Facebook who, truth be told, I was simply trying to impress. Suddenly, the idea of trying to impress some white, male, millennial with an intentionally bad haircut just to promote my images seemed awfully embarrassing.
With Covid -19 we couldn't not only travel internationally, going to the grocery store became a major excursion. (Frankly, it still is; see above about high school science class.) Then I lost my passport and my knee flared up and wow, my world got really small. My world narrowed all the way down to my backyard vegetable garden. That was pretty much the only place I consistently go, and even then I'm like Christina's World, I hobble back there and then crawl around with my camera. But that narrowing and slowing down didn't go unnoticed. And that's where I am. My world got really small...
Yesterday I made one image. One image I really liked. It made me happy to do it, and that was fine with me. It made me happy unlike the rejections I get when 800 people send in five images and mine wasn't one of the 4,000 the curator had to choose from. (How fucking ridiculous is that?) Or it made me happy, unlike the feeling I get when only five people give one of those hearts on IG. (How fucking pathetic is that?)
So for now, if anyone wants me, I'll be out back, crawling around with a DSLR with a 35 mm lens attached--a lens that I used to use all the time but for some reason traded it in for a 70 - 100 mm zoom--and sometimes a flash. And if I can make one good image, the day is pretty good. That's how small my world has gotten.
Art in the time of Covid 19. On my social media feeds I began seeing artists immediately reacting to the situation. Images of social distancing, of being alone, or just the opposite, complete with hashtags began popping up. And I'm beginning to see playwrights at the beginning stages of plays, with the "Time of the Coronavirus" as the setting. I guess I'm not really a documentarian. I do know my first reaction was that I suddenly felt that achievement wasn't something I wanted to focus on, so the 5:00 email I got one Friday that I wasn't accepted into the first round of a major award barely registered. What the hell would I do with the money, anyway, if no more than 10 people could congregate to see my play? Oh, and if your response is that this will all get better and we'll go back to normalcy sooner than we think, I'll just roll my eyes. A highly infectious, highly contagious virus with no vaccine available in the foreseeable future (read a year or more) and this is here to stay long after a vaccine is found.
More than ever, I'm turning my gaze inward, examining the micro world. Despite every bone in my body telling me differently, this world is extraordinarily beautiful, charming the pants off me on a daily basis. But, the one of the many things the coronavirus has made imminently noticeable is that death is all around us, it is clearly a viable choice of Nature for all us.
I don't know; this is a start:
I was raised in an apartment made up of four very small rooms. My sister and I shared the cramped bedroom in the back, and my parents slept in the dining room. It was embarrassing when any of my friends came over. They wouldn’t say anything; they ignored my family life, but I could tell they noticed and they judged. They couldn’t help it. It wasn’t their fault. That’s just how they…we…are raised.
We were simply guilty of the crime of being poor. And there are ramifications to that.
Also, while growing up in that tiny apartment, my father and sister both had serious mental issues that were left untreated. It felt like every day of my life I would scream in my thoughts, Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY? They couldn’t, but I didn’t understand that, at the time.
I haven’t had these feelings in a long time, but now this is what my country feels like. All of this is so very familiar. Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY?
I'm embarking on a new project, exploring my family and my history to try to understand what is happening in the United States. I've lived around insanity, and all of this is so familiar.
And I am so...afraid. An artist friend and I have been talking about the fear and all of the reasons for it at the very beginning of a project to put pen to paper or, in my case, pictures and ink and paint and God knows what else I decide to throw up on a board. I'm not crazy about delving into my past. I'm one who believes there's nothing better than a good suppressed memory. I'm not anxious to relive any of my childhood. And there's an immense fear of failure. I'm working with materials I haven't worked with in forty years. I mean, the chances of anything worth showing is minimal. But you know what? It's kind of fun. I am so inept that it's all I can do is have fun. I've been working with pastels a bit, and all I think is the same thing I think when I'm hanging out a car door shooting a series for Riding Shotgun: Don't think, just shoot. (Or in this case, it's, Don't think, just draw.) And I remember the idea that I had when I was in art school, that I never was interested in replicating anything, but instead just focus on what's inside me: my own work and my own presentation, about putting my own mark on something. So I look at these pastels and think to myself, well, you still know color. And your work is strong, it may not be pretty, but it sure does demands attention. And that's where I am today. Oh yeah, the coronavirus? I hope I don't die before I finished this project.
For the Provincetown Independent
The world’s not necessarily a kind place, says multimedia artist Johannes Barfield, and he hints that there were so many obstacles to overcome between his childhood artistic ambitions and the studio space he currently occupies as a fellow at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center. But not once in an hour and a half did this reserved man whose art is rooted in his own personal history of growing up black in the South disclose specifically what those obstacles were. He remained guarded. Like with his artwork, the things he chooses to disclose or hide are his decisions alone.
Born and raised an only child in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Barfield’s mother headed the city’s Red Cross’s Disaster Services Department and his father was an independent long-distance freight hauler. As a child Barfield would sometimes accompany a parent to a disaster zone or ride shotgun cross-country with his father. His early memories of being on the road with his parents gave him such a strong sense of freedom that he titled one of his earlier pieces from a line from the rapper, Common, “Who Freed Me, Lincoln or Cadillac?”
Now, during his seven-month residency in Provincetown, he’s diving deep into childhood memories, expressing complex emotions, preparing for both his upcoming solo show at FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery that opens Friday, February 21 – 26, and a show in September at Mary S. Byrd Gallery of Art at Augusta University in Georgia.
For both shows, his chief topics are family, memory, and cars that are representative of freedom, but also the danger of being black and being pulled over and having a gun put in your face. Barfield uses canvas, paint, asphalt that represents both the road and blackness, joint compound representing institutions, college ruled paper, wheat paste, the adhesive of choice for street artists, images printed on a low-end office printer for a low tech feel, and iron-rich red dirt he brought from North Carolina to make the aggregate that is one of Barfield’s pieces. Another definition of the word, aggregate, by the way, is a construction material used in building roads and also a word that aptly fits Barfield’s work. When he was a child, before he wanted to be an artist, Barfield dreamed of being an archeologist, sifting through layers of past cultures to understand them. That practice now carries over into his adult work.
His layered pieces start with a central image—for example, his mother in a car or the cartoon character, Marge Simpson during a fit of road rage, who the child/artist imagined racially ambiguous with her blue Afro. The images are printed on the ruled paper, the paper then attached to the canvas with the wheat paste and smeared with the joint compound. Then it appears as if the asphalt and red dirt have been hurled at the image, obscuring most of its original meaning or context. It is up to the viewer to decide if the artist is forcing or inviting them to be an archeologist, to sift through the layers, through the blackness, to see and experience Barfield’s memories through all that representational material and then…what? It seems the most plausible response is that Barfield is inviting the viewer to experience what it’s like for him to remember through all of that concealment, through all the layers, good and bad, that shroud his memory.
Barfield explains that with these materials he’s trying to express a complex emotion. “It’s not sad, it’s not happy, it’s not melancholy; it’s all of those things intertwined. I’m trying to focus beyond binaries, and more on tertiary, a place that is in between, a space that embodies all of those feelings, collapsing those feelings, creating an intersectionality, looking beyond good and bad.”
While there are artists who are non-white who wish to be identified simply as artists without their race or ethnicity attached to the label, Barfield is not one of them. “Those individuals are fine for their path,” he says. “They are individuals who may have encountered discrimination, all types of things to hold them in place from being able to progress, or they’re people who don’t want to be pigeonholed in this sub-category. I am very prideful and being black is definitely a part of me, and it’s not something I’d want to deny or put in the background; I don’t want to hide my face. Being a black artist in America means you’re already an obscurity. There are so many people who came before you who don’t look like you. I just want to be true to myself, how I feel and my experiences and being able to share that part of my truth, is the only thing I feel comfortable with and what I’d want to project.”
These are easily the most erotic/sensual images I've ever made. A geranium blossom. When they appeared in the viewfinder, when they showed themselves, I had no idea. They kept appearing, and I kept making them. The more I made, the more I was shown.
Provincetown Banner: In Provincetown, and at the Tennessee Williams festival, Abrahamse and Meyer just say Noh
Every artist has to eat. A lot of artists teach. I continue with my established career of using two of my artistic talents for monetary gain: writing about and photographing the things that I care about. One of the things I do is string for the art editor of the Provincetown Banner, interviewing (but I shy away from that word; I tell them that we're just going to talk) and photographing the artists that either live on Cape Cod, or come through for other reasons.
By John Greiner-Ferris / Banner Correspondent
Posted Sep 18, 2019 at 8:33 PM
Theater is not just a spectator sport. It’s a collaborative art form that requires the active participation of everyone involved, including audience members. That’s just one of the reasons Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer have been returning to the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival with their troupe from Cape Town, South Africa, since they made their debut here in 2012.
“I think the great thing about festivals like the Tennessee Williams festival is that you are performing to a house full of people who are there because they like theater or love Tennessee Williams,” Abrahamse says. “When you perform in a traditional theater in a town, at least 50 percent of the audience has been dragged there by a partner or it’s a charity night. But when you play at something like the Tennessee Williams Festival, they just drink it in, and it’s fantastic.”
This year, Abrahamse and Meyer are spending the weeks leading up to the festival in residence at the Provincetown Theater, performing Yukio Mishima’s 1954 Noh play, “The Lady Aoi” (pronounced ow-wee), a festival favorite from 2014. Once the festival itself begins, on Thursday, Sept. 26 (through Sunday, Sept. 29), Abrahamse and Meyer Productions will perform “The Lady Aoi” in repertory at the Provincetown Theater with a Noh-inspired production of Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana.”
A craving for passionate theater and a love of the classics are what brought Abrahamse and Meyer together — they met 15 years ago when Meyer auditioned for Abrahamse in “Much Ado about Nothing.”
“I love classical theater,” Abrahamse says. “I’ve never been a great avant-garde fan. Give me a big Shakespeare or O’Neill or Williams play. I like working with text, and I suppose what united us was the love of examining classical pieces through text. The text always informs our work.”
Meyer agrees, fervently. “Great writing makes me hungry,” he says. “Because the writing is always the starting point. Being an actor, you are a servant, you are a tool to something that is bigger and greater than you. Playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare and Mishima had this incredible gift to be able to put into words the human experience, and to bring that to life is a great honor.”
Meyer is an interesting person to watch. He is muscular, with dark eyes that observe. He sits with his legs pulled up under him as if reserving his energy until, like an actor making a strong choice, he delivers on an emotion and speaks clearly and definitively. In “The Lady Aoi,” he plays Lady Rokujo, the spurned lover of Prince Genji, and once the festival begins, he will also play Lawrence Shannon, the defrocked minister in “The Night of the Iguana.”
Cape Town to Cape Cod
What: “The Lady Aoi,” by Yukio Mishima, performed by Abrahamse and Meyer Productions
When: 7 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday
Where: Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St.
Admission: $29-$35, seniors/students $24, at provincetowntheater.org
Abrahamse and Meyer know their Williams and Mishima — “aliens with exceptional skills” is how the U.S. State Department described the two South Africans when they were granted visas. And Meyer is delightfully adept at laying out the historical background for how Mishima’s work and friendship influenced Williams, which the reason their work is paired at the 2019 festival.
“Williams and Mishima saw each other several times in Japan and in the States and became very good friends,” Meyer says. “But on Williams’ first trip to Japan, in ’57 or ’58, Mishima took him to see several Noh and Kabuki plays. Williams was working on ‘Iguana’ and ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.’ He was working on what would eventually become ‘In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.’ And from having spent time in Japan and having seen all these Japanese plays, he then starts to integrate conventions and structures of Japanese theater in his own plays.”
It wasn’t an easy transition. “The final outcome of western drama is catharsis,” Meyer says. “The essence of Noh theater is the beauty of human suffering. It’s about that whole Buddhist philosophy of releasing the things we cling to in this world. One doesn’t normally think of ‘Iguana’ as a Japanese play, but it’s steeped in Asian aesthetic and philosophy. ‘Iguana’ was Williams’ last big hit on Broadway, but when he thoroughly integrated Japanese culture in ‘Milk Train,’ the critics at the time derided him for having gone crazy. ‘Iguana’ sits on the cusp. It’s going to be interesting to see it this year, surrounded by all this Japanese and Japanese-inspired writing.”
Abrahamse, who is directing “The Night of the Iguana” (Meyer designed the set and costumes), says, “What’s lovely is you don’t need all the trimmings of traditional Western theater.”
David Drake, the artistic director of the Provincetown Theater, describes Abrahamse and Meyer Productions as “world theater,” a term that Meyer uses as well. “Great writing belongs to everyone,” he says without a trace of defensiveness when the conversation turns to identity politics — specifically, why two Caucasian men from South Africa should perform Noh theater — and just who has and who hasn’t the right to tell another’s story.
“What qualifies a Japanese theater company to do Shakespeare?” Meyer asks. “To box Mishima into being a playwright that can only be touched by Asian actors is crazy, because that diminishes how important he is as a writer. ... Williams and Mishima were right about the human condition, that it is universal whether you’re in Australia or Africa or New Zealand or the States. The basic human things are the same, but at the moment people are constantly trying to tell us that we are different. We are in such a dangerous time, because there is a faction of crazy people telling us what we should be doing.”
There is a 20-year age difference between Abrahamse and Meyer. Abrahamse, the older of the two, lived through apartheid and liberation and the corruption that has ensued. “You ask us what it’s like to be here in Provincetown,” he says. “You don’t lock your doors here. We lock our bikes, and people say, ‘You don’t have to lock your bikes — it’s Provincetown.’ Marcel and I live in a province where 47 to 50 people in the city a week are murdered. I think every single South African has a family member, friend or neighbor who’s been subject to violence. So when we tackle something like Williams, who deals with the broken spirit, who deals with the other, who deals with physically as well as emotionally crippled people, we are able to kind of go straight to the marrow.”
John Greiner-Ferris is a fine arts photographer and writer in the Boston area.