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Looking Under Language: Memory, Creole, Poem, and Myth with Ivan Forde

Jennifer Harley

In February 2020, I visited artist and 2008 Expanding the Walls alumni Ivan Forde in his East Harlem studio. We talked about the role of language and literature in his work, how photography, walking in Harlem, interacting with neighbors is sparking new experiments in his studio that layer epic myths, family stories, and how The Studio Museum in Harlem and the teen photography program were catalysts for his studio practice.

Jennifer Harley: It is a pleasure to visit your studio! Tell me a bit about what you are working on right now.

Ivan Forde: I’ve been in the studio space for about six months, and it is cool because I don’t live too far from here. The walking back and forth has been unexpectedly really great. Working so close to home, my studio brain turns on earlier than when I am getting on the train to commute. I am noticing so much more in the street and started doing these rubbings. After I get to the studio and [respond to] some e-mails or make a drawing, I’ll take a break and just walk around the area, mostly east of Third Avenue. The rubbings have been really feeding my investigations in terms of surface, line, and how to build compositions by interacting with the street. They are kind of unraveling into these site-specific interactions. Just by virtue of doing them on the street, they are open to the public, and people stop and talk to me.  The finished rubbings are documents of these conversations, too. 

Like this one, New beginning (2019) was done right outside. This building [where his studio is located] used to be a church called New Beginning Ministry. I had to get a ladder to go up and do the rubbing, and as I am doing it, one of the guys that hangs out on the block proceeded to tell me the story of the building. He grew up here in the 1970s and 1980s and told me all about how the church started in the 1960s. He told me about the pastor and how much of a community space it was. Our interaction came from this rubbing and me stepping out of the studio for a second. Each rubbing has different narratives attached to it. I am figuring out where those narratives can live in my current project, and the rubbings' relationship is to mark-making and drawing. Drawing in this way is very different than when I am sitting here and trying to make a drawing. 

JH: Are these rubbings, these moments, and physical interactions with the site and the buildings in Harlem, something that you have done in other parts of the neighborhood?

IF: I started when I came to this studio; mostly, I feel like they came out of this urge to reimagine the studio as a self-generating space. The studio can function as a tool or device in itself, in the same way, I would use a pencil, a brush, or Photoshop. It came out of just looking at the surfaces here. I was doing rubbings inside the building, and then I eventually turned my attention to the street and seeing the street as the same thing—a tool to generate ideas. 

Now, the rubbings are being translated into cyanotypes and taking on a different aura. Like in this work, Journey (2019), there is a merchant around the corner who sells these African masks. One day I went up to him and asked if I could do a rubbing of one of his masks. As I am doing it, he’s sort of guiding me. He’s  like, “Oh no, you have to get the eyes more,” and “What  if you doubled it?” He participated in this intimate way, and once it was done, he was like, “What are you going to do with it? Are you going to put it on a T-shirt and sell it?”  And I was like, “No, this is kind of it, we just did  it, whatever it was, you helped me make this thing on the  street!” It has been really exciting, and these innocuous moments have started to seep into the project. 

JH: You were in Italy for a residency this summer! Tell me about what you were working on there and how that line of thought has continued in Harlem?

IF: I was at the Civitella Ranieri castle in Umbria for six weeks; working in Italy was a unique and impactful adventure. In the work I made leading up to the residency, I was thinking about vessels that hold not only water or wine but also stories and how these forms are related to the body’s capacity to carry stories. My research focused on traditional Greek amphorae and anthropomorphic Mexican and West African pottery.  

In Italy, I experienced Rome, Venice and explored small towns in between with frescoes by Tuscan and Umbrian masters such as Piero della Francesca and Giotto. I saw vessel forms everywhere and thought about how I could expand upon this in my work by formulating my project broadly and poetically around vessels. I began working on a continuous ten-yard scroll of paper in my sunny hillside studio. I used cyanotype, watercolor, rubbings, and collage to expand upon Amié Césaire’s “Notebook Of A Return To My Native Land” and Wilson Harris’s 1954 collection of poetry that transplants characters from the Odyssey to the Guyana coastland. These experiences lead me to consider ideas related to the Creole language and its uniquely rich accumulation of different tongues, histories, dialects, and religions.  

One project that came out of the residency was a scroll titled Black or Darker Impressions On A River Of Ocean. I am creolizing history and epic poetry with my own experiences, fantasies, desires, and my family's history, memory, and migration experience. I hope to show it in NYC someday. Now in my studio, I  am continuing to experiment with the creole in visual terms. 

On God, 2019. Cyanotype and glitter on archival paper. 25 x 30.25 in. Courtesy the Artist.

JH: Did you grow up speaking Creole?

IF: Yeah, I was born in Guyana and moved to Harlem when I was ten.  So, I spoke Guyanese Creole at that moment. When I moved here, there was a lot of pressure to speak "better" or in a way that people can understand.  In school, they were like,  “You are not ESL, but you need to take these classes,” so my accent is now gone mostly, but if you have a good ear, you can detect it.  

JH: So, it becomes this problem to be fixed.

IF: Yeah, when I think about it, it was a really weird experience.

JH: So much of what we have looked at, so far, deals with this relationship to time, particularly looping times, historical time, mythical time, and contemporary time; living writers responding to historical writers, and then you respond to them with images. I am curious how time and memory figure into your studio practice.

IF:  Memory is fundamental to my overall practice and is explored most intimately in a body of work centering on the political history of my grandmother’s village, Buxton.  

I think a lot about different ways memories are communicated.  In Alchemy, all those symbols are essentially memory aids to guide you through the complicated process of transformation.  The way memory is handled in  the Caribbean and, more specifically, West Indian culture, people get together and talk about the past, sometimes loudly and excitedly, and contradict each other and are like “No, this is the way it happened!” is fascinating. I think about how, without specific symbols to guide us, the memory becomes less static, fluid. There are more  possibilities for things to get transformed and new ideas to take shape. 

When I was working around memory with the neuroscientists at the Zuckerman Neuroscience Institute for my last commission, one explained how memories become lost in the act of retrieval. That is super interesting to me, like, “What?!” 

JH: Wow, yes. It is also in some ways like photographs. Photographs are amazing, but so often they replace the memory. They both capture the moment and do this really interesting job of saving, collecting, and archiving. But then I think about so many moments in my life, and all I can really remember is one specific image: the photograph, not the moment.

IF: Photographs sort of fill out space and how it existed or how it currently exists, even in your mind; I also spend a lot of time thinking about other memory triggers such as smell, sound, or music. Music totally functions in the same way as photographs. If I hear a  song that I have not heard in a long time, it brings me back to that moment or period or night, even when that song was playing. 

JH: What else is on your mind at the moment in the studio?

IF: My ideas are most directly informed by poetry. Right now, I am thinking a lot about Wilson Harris’s vision as a historical dimension, Édourd Glissant on opacity, and Jay Wright’s poetry. I’m drawn to really massive stories that are too big to tell in one sitting, stories you have to come back to again and again to spend time with. Like, reading the Epic of GilgameshThe Odyssey, or Paradise Lost, you have to read it at least a few times, slowly and out loud, to get it. Rigor is required to engage it. I’m pushing for my work to have its terms of engagement and rigor. You have to prepare yourself before coming to it. 

JH: And there is so much in it that often there are even characters that later get their own whole epics.

IF: Yes, that’s really where it’s at, honestly!

The Truth Was Nothing Could Be The Same Between Them Again, 2018. Silkscreen, cyanotype, ceramic glaze, earth, and pastel on archival paper. 32.5 x 41 in. Courtesy the Artist.

JH: Do you have stories like that in your own life or your own mythology?

IF:  I am the youngest in my family, so I arrived at this point in my family’s history, where three out of four grandparents had passed away. We had moved a couple of times, and to me, it feels like my mom, my dad, and my siblings had this whole other life and then this whole other life before that, all before I even came along. My mom is a great storyteller, and if I ask her a question about certain things that happened in the past, she knows that I appreciate the stories and that I am sort of at a distance with certain things. The way that she tells the story of how she came up with this idea to migrate to America or how her dad was a sugarcane cutter and worked on these estates and would ride his blue bicycle miles and miles into the city every day, and had this little radio. All these things kind of overlap in my memory. 

When I dive into mythology, into stories that might or might not have happened millennia before, it is kind of the same thing with my personal family history. My family has proximity to the events that happened, so they may not see it in the same way or have the same questions that someone who is at a distance. More and more, that is becoming my role in my family, the question-curious-youngest sibling. I have also been recording conversations with my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister on my mom’s side, and different activists from  Buxton, the village my maternal grandmother was from. I sort of know my grandmother more through stories than as a person, and the village is a place I am of but not from. So there is also that relationship between memory and the myths we tell to keep those memories. I am slowly building this archive of recorded stories that I bring back into the sound performances. 

Each rubbing has different narratives attached to it, and I am figuring out where those narratives can live in my artwork, and what the relationship of the rubbings is to mark-making and drawing.

JH: Tell me more about your conversations with your grandmother’s sister and the activists from Buxton Village, Guyana, where she and your grandmother are from?  

IF: We talk a lot about the role of Black women, particularly this one Black woman, but she is kind of a lot of Black women over the course of village history. There are all these different names, but they are always talking about the same person. I am always wondering how can she exist, how can she live in the 1960s and also in the 1850s? She has a couple of names; Nana Cully,  an activist, Mama Fiffee, a healer, and  Black Janet. These women-led political actions in the village. I am always astonished by these women who are like this is bullshit, we got to organize and figure this thing out, whatever issue the village was facing

JH:  I am so sad I was out of town during your sound performance that was a part of Dense Lightness curated by Anna Harsanyi at Baxter St at CCNY. Tell me about how sound is a part of your practice?

IF: I was so reluctant for many years because I am not a  musician, I am not trained, and I don’t have a great ear or anything like that. But it just got to the point where I felt like activating the images. Sound always puts me in a place where I can just imagine or where it aids me in making-believe. I wanted to bring that to the installation, and I performed with David Adewumi on trumpet and Roger Bonair Agard reading original poems he wrote in response to my images illuminating the life of Gilgamesh’s double, Enkidu. It really extended the narrative element and brought the images to life. 

When Forms Digress, 2013. Digital collage on archival paper. 17 x 22 in. Courtesy the artist.

JH: Tell me about how self-portraiture became such a central part of your work. There is a lot of vulnerability in photographing yourself and telling a story with your body. To photograph yourself means any number of things, but I am curious about how you came to using your image in the work and what vulnerability comes with that?

IF: I call it performing for the camera, in a way. This Series, “Transformation" (2012), when I started it, I was like, these are self-portraits, but they are not really self-representative because this is not how I exist in the world.  I am taking apart fixed notions of myself, or any oversimplification of my identity. The activity of hitting the shutter, running into the frame and moving around it, laying my head there or my arm there or my leg there and then condensing all these moments of interactions, and then putting it together, I see more as self-portraiture through performance and collage. Using myself and working with my self-image is a material right. My body is as much an apparatus as the camera or a site as the studio. How can I continue to transform it, to see myself in completely new and radical ways that society has yet to show me? It’s a highly vulnerable state but it can be a superpower as deeper emotions are evoked by gestures in this liminal state. The vulnerability really came out of people’s interactions. It serves as a way to talk about things that you rarely get the chance to talk about. 

JH: I am curious to know a little bit more about your experience taking photos as a young person in Harlem. What has changed, and what is the same?

IF: That is interesting, oh man, I had not thought about that in a while. This is a tangent, but last New Year’s Eve, I was at Alani’s [another Expanding the Walls alumni] apartment, and I had bought this film camera. I had forgotten where I got this camera, and I thought, “Oh, someone gave it to me.” I pulled out this camera, and she was like, “Ivan, that is the camera from Expanding the Walls, what are you doing with that thing?” I was like, “Oh shit, that is the camera; how could I have forgotten about that?” It still works, it is in perfect condition, and I use it all the time, I just sort of forgot where I had gotten the camera from.

JH: In some ways, that is a good thing; it means it has just become part of your life or maybe part of your myth?

IF: Yes, it totally has! Is it like it has just always been around! But you know, shooting in those early days of Expanding the Walls was the catalyst in terms of how to see the street and the city as a realm of radical creative possibilities.

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