“let me write my music not for earth alone, but for the worlds” ― Sun Ra
We are living in dystopian times, that much is clear. Through the miasma of wildfires, hurricanes, socioeconomic upheaval and civil unrest, the individual strains to envision benevolent futures. For the global majority, the reality of dystopia has long been the cultural narrative. The history of colonization is, for most, a tale of apocalypse. Still in the wake of devastation, we may find new seeds nourished by ashes that grow the most verdant gardens. April Bey is one of those gardens. The Bahamian artist is a child of colonial aftermath that has emerged from once and current dystopia to create portals of escape for herself and us all. Bey’s latest work, Atlantica, is a trans-terrestrial installation designed to teleport audiences to another world. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I was privileged to converse with Bey about her exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, which opens this weekend.
Your work centers around representations of the African diaspora via textile, primarily. And I wondered how you came to Reno of all places with this body of work?
My show was up in California at the California African American Museum. And it was actually the CEO of the museum and the curator Carmen Beals, who came to California to see the show. And they decided that Reno geographically needed to have the work in that space, and that the population there would appreciate it and needed it. And so they worked out an agreement with the museum to transfer the intellectual property, as well as with me to get the show to move to Reno.
That’s really incredible. I love the African American Museum. It just blows my face off every time I go in there. In Atlantica, is there a shift between what was in the African American Museum and what’s being presented in Reno?
It’s the same show. There are a few new pieces. And because the whole entire show was an installation, it’s a new installation. So there’s a significant amount of the work that’s new, just because the space is different.
Also, the portal—there’s a room right before you get into the main room, called the portal. It’s supposed to be made up of, live plants and, humidifiers and everything. So that’s a major change in the show, because we’re actually using artificial plants, So I’ll be able to, like, hang them in ways that I wouldn’t be able to hang organic plants like upside down so it looks more like a science fiction portal to another planet.
That’s, super rad and gorgeous. I wonder what your feelings are as a voice in Afrofuturism and what you hope audiences will gain from it.
Yeah, so I actually fall more into the speculative futurism category. Because I make commentary on all cultures. It’s not just Black people that are in my work, concepts and deities and all kinds of stuff. What I’m hoping that the work does is invite people to step outside of this planet, and see illustrations of what we could be and what we could do. Maybe even use the installation as an escape for a place to find solace. So, join the work. The work in this show in particular focuses on Black people vacationing, and being in opulence and pleasure.
Yes, please! Always more of that. I wonder, do you reference deities? Are there specific deities that you feel that you’re incorporating into this work that we’ll be seeing in Reno? Specific speculations along with that, that you feel are important to address for this work in particular?
So the show is based off of the book, The Gilda Stories by Jewell Gomez. That book is a historically queer book. It was one of the first to star a lesbian Black woman who is also a vampire. And she becomes this figure in the book where she is now no longer an escaped slave, but is now a vampire that doesn’t need humanity. But she, she can’t not have humanity, she still falls in love with humans. She still feels the need to participate in civil rights movements and write books for humans. And she becomes this godlike character that is powerful, but still in love with very small, primitive beings. The first image you see when you walk into the Gilda region is Gilda, which is a very large drawing of fat Black femme holding a large plant that has flowers that are Black women’s fists with acrylic nails as the flower. … There’s also Mami Wata [an African and Caribbean water spirit]. … There’s an advertisement for churches. So the installation is supposed to emulate the portion of the airport that you go through when you get off your plane and you’re looking for ground transportation or getting to luggage. If you go on vacation, you’re gonna see a lot of ads for all of the things you could do on that trip. All of the restaurants you can visit. And oftentimes, at least in the Bahamas, where I’m from, a lot of the ads, if they show Bahamians, they’re going to be in servitude. They’re going to be serving drinks, or with a thumbs up standing by the boat waiting to take tourists out. You never see Bahamians actually laying on the beach in their own country, getting drinks served to them. So that’s kind of the vibe of the installation.
So Atlantica is a reclamation of leisure for Black folks, to put it lightly. You clearly are a big speculative fiction fan. Can you walk me back a little bit to where that began for you?
So the origin story of Atlantica, which is what I’m working on now came from my dad when I was young, his attempt to give me “the talk” being a sci-fi nerd, his attempt to give me the talk was to tell me that we were aliens from another planet. And when people say that we look differently, or we get treated differently, that was the reason why. So I don’t personally know any better way to explain racism to a child! That’s the nerdiness—like, my whole family … we’re just really into science fiction, and we don’t need to tolerate what’s happening now because we know how to dream and we know how to look at illustrations of the future. So that’s the origin story of Atlantica. And now I can work from Atlantica imagery from the planet that we’re from.
That’s an exceptional narrative. Both about your personal work and about how we are forced to grapple with dialogue surrounding something that should be so alien that we have to make ourselves them.
What were your thoughts on Nevada? And do you feel like any of that experience affected your process for this installation?
Um, no, because I’m bringing you another planet for people to visit. It’s literally a portal. It’s another location. People in Nevada can visit or not, but there’s not really anything else they can do or say because it’s, it’s like going to Paris and getting upset they speak French.
Images courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.
April Bey: Atlantica, The Gilda Region opens at the Nevada Museum of Art this Saturday Aug. 26 and runs through Feb. 4, 2024. Related events include “April Bey in Dialogue with Carmen Beals” Aug. 25 from 6-7 pm and “Turning Pages Book Club: The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez” on Sept. 27 from 11:30 am-1pm.