Mixing it up at Spoleto
Annual festival shaping up to be one of the most diverse events on the arts calendar
By Kendra Hamilton
One of the most anticipated events on the arts calendar — the Spoleto Festival USA, now in its 27th year in Charleston, S.C., — also seems to be evolving into one of the most diverse, with African American, South American and Asian acts generously sprinkled throughout the three-week carnival of classical and jazz music, dance, theater, opera, visual arts and multimedia events. According to Spoleto officials, 85,000 people visit Charleston during the festival.
“This year the program was particularly diverse for a variety of reasons — for the most part because things just worked out that way,” says Nigel Redden, the festival’s general director. “But we’re very pleased in terms of the variety of the festival — and not just the variety, but the way in which things seemed to fit.”
For example, conceptual artist, writer and musician Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. “DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid,” was attractive not just because his work is provocative and original, but also because his highly contemporary “remixing” of the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation,” stood as a sharp contrast to the festival’s period piece: “The Peony Pavilion,” a 400-year-old masterpiece from the Ming Dynasty, performed in traditional kunju style, a highly formalized singing, dancing and pantomime Chinese opera. So, too, did playwright Carlyle Brown’s “The Fula from America: An African Journey” provide an interesting counterpoint to another one-man show, Brian Lipson’s “A Large Attendance in the Antechamber,” a satirical take on the life of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton.
In all these pieces, notes Redden, “the issues of identity are central — God knows an enormous amount of art has been devoted to that sort of exploration, and the interesting thing about all this searching for identity is that it’s found in so many different forms. Indeed, one of the reasons for going to a festival, any festival, is to see that exploration from as wide a perspective as possible.”
Such explorations of identity can take the artists involved down strange and winding paths. For example, Dr. Leo Twiggs, one of the leading visual artists of the post-1945 generation, and founder of the art department at South Carolina State University, which until his tenure was the only state university in the South without one, created a sensation in the 1970s with his “Commemoration” series, which addressed the Confederate flag from a surprising perspective — as an artifact of African American heritage.
“In the South,” explains Twiggs, “the flag is a symbol that many African Americans love to hate, that many Whites love to remember.”
But that’s not all there is to the story, he says. “The South is such an interesting place, and Charleston is particularly interesting for African Americans, because Charleston is the place where our ancestors began their long journey.”
Twiggs says that he became fascinated with the flag as a part of that journey, though, in his subtle fabric paintings, it can appear moldering and tattered, like a moth-eaten fragment from a trunk in some latter-day Confederate’s attic — or with the faces and figures of African American elders and children looming above or below, providing a mute commentary on the symbol’s meaning.
In the 40-year retrospective on display at Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art through early August, it’s clear that there’s a storytelling impulse at the heart of Twiggs’ work. He works in series — there’s a “We Have Known Rivers” series inspired by the Langston Hughes poem and the South Carolina landscape. Others have been inspired by natural phenomena such as Hurricane Hugo or culture and family: the blues, his mother, the Bible.
He works in batik, a popular method of dyeing fabric using removable wax. But there’s no comparison between Twiggs’ magical, emotionally resonant batik paintings and the scarves one buys off the street. In his hands, the technique takes on a variety of effects: colors with jewel-like intensity or muted subtlety, spidery lines and textures resulting from the cracking of the wax, delicate shadings resulting from the intermixture of dyes.
The shortest acquaintance with his work is assurance enough that Twiggs is clearly a figure of lasting importance in contemporary art — and not least because of his pivotal role at South Carolina State.
“We generate 99.9 percent of the African American art instructors in the state of South Carolina. And we are proud that they are not just teachers — they are artists who know how to teach,” Twiggs says.
BLACK ARTISTRY ON STAGE
By contrast, playwright and sometime-performer Carlyle Brown avoids teaching like the plague.
There’s the occasional playwright-in-residence gig here or there, but Brown tends to find much of theatrical training to be detrimental to African American talent.
“So much of artistic training is culturally based, and African American culture is simply not accepted. The first thing they tell you as a young actor is that you have to change your speech, change the way you move. So from the beginning, there’s a loss for the artist,” he says.
Thus, Brown prefers to concentrate on the writing — the commissions from Washington’s Arena Stage, the Houston Grand Opera, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, among others, that have allowed him to write plays as “The African Company Presents Richard III,” “The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Minstrel Show,” “The Negro of Peter the Great,” based on an unfinished novella by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and many others.
Brown notes that he was inspired to write “The Fula from America” based on events that transpired more than 20 years before, and by the events of Sept. 11.
He was struck by “this whole discussion about, ‘How could this have happened? why do they hate us?’ And then the answer comes — and of course, it’s all White guys saying this — they hate us because of our freedom,” Brown says.
The play allowed him to explore both American notions of freedom and prosperity, as well as the concept of the “ugly American” through his confrontation with his own behavior as a privileged and oftentimes obnoxious American traveling on a shoestring budget in West Africa.
“Deep in my psyche, I was looking for my African roots,” Brown says. “But I discovered how American really I am.”
Brown is hard at work on his next play “Pure Confidence,” a story of a racehorse jockey in the antebellum South. “I’m fascinated by these guys who absolutely dominated the racing industry,” he says.
And Brown also dreams of the day when he might find an African American conservatory of theater, teaching the arts that African Americans brought to the stage, especially the dancing and the singing skills that were cultivated during minstrelsy and vaudeville. “When we were doing ‘Little Tommy Parker,’ we found it quite difficult to cast,” Brown explains. “The men auditioning might be able to sing, but they weren’t able to dance. Or they might be dancers without being actors.”
“But when you think about it, back in the day, these guys were the total package. There were incredible conditions of prejudice, they faced all sorts of restraints, yet they were dancing, singing, acting comedians, tragedians — you name it. We’ve lost so much of what we were” because of our cultural shame, our miseducation about our culture, he says.
A NEW GENERATION
Interestingly, the global sway of hip-hop culture appears to be making it possible for a new generation of African American artists to find success without compromising their love of their culture. DJ Spooky is one such success story, making waves as a conceptual artist, as a writer, as a musician and as a professor of mediated art at the European Graduate School in New York City.
After graduating from Bowdoin College with degrees in philosophy and French literature, Miller found himself in New York, writing for magazines such as Artforum and The Village Voice. But the “egomania” of New York editors grew so tiring and the profits from his sideline of dejaying at parties grew so large that he moved into music full time — along with making art, editing cutting-edge digital media magazines, “remixing” films, and writing books of essays and, now, a novel.
On “Birth of a Nation,” Miller says, “To me the film is ironic and it has a relatively twisted sense of humor. And that’s what it’s all about for me at the end of the day, having an ironic sense of humor and just having people think.
“There’s a famous phrase by Santayana, ‘Those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it.’ It’s ironic to me that early hip-hop names like Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore are also Klan titles — and that when you see the film and look back to the Bush election, with Black voters being turned from the polls in Florida, you see that that could have been a scene from the film.
“As a culture, we don’t question too much. I want to make people question,” Miller adds.
Miller’s work as an artist has appeared in the Whitney Biennial; the Ludwig Museum of Cologne, Germany; the Kunsthalle in Vienna, Austria; the Andy Warhol Museum and Gallery in Pittsburgh; and many others.
His first collection of essays, Rhythm Science, has just appeared from MIT Press with a cover blurb from hip-hop authority Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley. Miller’s collaborating with both artists and jazz and hip-hop musicians, and he’s even made a foray into teaching, at the European Graduate School in New York.
“I guess there aren’t too many people doing what I’m doing,” Miller confesses. “I’m a writer-artist-musician, but really it was like having one of your hobbies take over. I started dejaying at school, and it was just about cute girls and hanging out at the party.
“I guess it’s good to have a hobby,” he says.
For more information on Spoleto, visit www.spoletousa.org
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