Alchemizing Black Femme Futures: jazsalyn & Shameekia Shantel Johnson of Black Beyond
“What does it feel like to be submerged into affirmations of your existence? And what does it feel like to share that with others and have it echoed and amplified?,” pondered jazsalyn, creative director of Black Beyond, a radical space for artists to speculate alternate realities of blackness. This month, jazsalyn and her co-curator Shameekia relaunched _origins, an immersive XR experience & new media art exhibition hosted on New Art City. The exhibition showcases the work of 12 Black femme artists, in addition to previously recorded performances and artist talks. Debuted this summer, the virtual space aims to “reclaim our power through conversations, workshops, art, and sound rituals.” Additionally, _origins references Legacy Russell’s “Glitch Feminism” and questions what it means for Black femmes to exercise their right to survive in a world that actively erases them. The idea of the future is paramount to black beyond, and as they peer into the beyond, the duo plans to open their inaugural in-person exhibition, _assembly, alchemy, ascension in NYC next spring and partake in community work.
What are your backgrounds?
S: I’m of Jamaican descent. My creative background includes curating and writing, which is something I’m new to. I was first introduced to art in high school— a lot of our class time was spent in museums, plays, and other cultural sites throughout New York. In college, I switched from business to art history, and that’s where I started to get into art as a practice, being a curator, and deciding what it means to come to a space and create stories.
j: I’m from the South — specifically North Carolina. I recently finished my MFA in Design & Technology at Parsons, and prior to that, I was working in the fashion industry, specifically in textile design. I also worked with a nano-technology research lab doing research around wearable technology. I’ve always had an interest in sci-fi which led me to explore wearable tech out of curiosity, and as I started to dive into it more, I began to have reservations. I began to question technology and what it means to Black communities, Black futures, Black presence.
L: Kiara Kalinda and Amirah, dis place (2021). Courtesy of the artist and black beyond _origins; R: _origins installation view (2021)
How did black beyond originate? Was there a defining moment in your lives that led to its creation?
j: black beyond generated from many minds coming together, collective energy, and conversations with other Black creatives. It’s an undefined, experimental, Black futurist space with Black creatives working at the intersections of technology. I had an idea to submit an exhibition proposal to Parsons after a newsletter went out, and it’s been two years since all this work has been done.
It started in the void of space to make experimental, progressive, forward-thinking work. That led to the exhibition proposal I submitted with neta bomani. The exhibition was titled black beyond _ assembly, alchemy, ascension, and was meant to be in person. Due to the pandemic, that got placed on hold, but in the meantime, I launched black beyond as a space to support the exhibition.
S: I wasn’t a part of black beyond in the moment of its conception. I came a little bit later through Salome Asega, who is an incredible artist, researcher, and educator. Salome contacted me when jazsalyn was doing black beyond because while the exhibition was postponed, they started to morph black beyond into a live stream series. One of the series I attended was on abolitionist writing, and I thought that was so dope! We were in conversation after that, and our ideas and energies aligned, so I officially partnered with black beyond to co-curate _origins, then became one of the curatorial members.
jazsalyn, I was reading your CULTURED piece from last year, and I saw that the idea of Afronowism coincides with black beyond’s mission. Can you explain what Afronowism is & why it’s integral to the work you’re doing?
j: The concept of Afronowism aligned with the work that I was doing, specifically for the in-person exhibition proposal. The concept of that exhibition started with a conversation about being stuck in this current space tied to oppression living in the West, longing for the future, and how that future at most times feels unattainable. Through black beyond’s mission and values, we are recontextualizing Jon Daniel’s design ideology of AfroNOWism. Our recontextualization of Afronowism is about channeling the future into the now and the transitional state between those two phases. It’s about learning to not romanticize the future as much, but finding power in the concept of the future by channeling it into the present.
Ahya Simone, Pique Portal (2021). Courtesy of the artist and black beyond _origins
S: We’ve experienced all these talks about the future, and it’s sort of this fantasy realm. Instead of separating time, we’re trying to merge it into one, single lived present experience as much as humanly possible.
This June you launched _origins, a four-day virtual art experience featuring an amazing lineup of black femme & non-binary artists and thinkers such as TYGAPAW, Kennedi Carter, JOJO ABOT, and Yves B. Golden. What do you want visitors to take away from _origins? What were you aiming for when curating your programing?
S: When curating, I hope visitors take away a refreshing experience. We wanted this to be a healing space that people could tap into on their phones and laptops. We wanted a space where they could feel like they’re in community while having private spaces carved out for them. I think we hit the mark with some of those workshops. For instance, Kennedi Carter and Marcella teamed up for a closed reading workshop about the Black romance. It’s recorded, but it’s kept for our archives and won’t be posted. That’s an example of the community and intimate space we were trying to cultivate. We even set up a Discord channel where people could pop in and share music, recipes, and memories. We were aiming for a creative, restorative space, tapping into Legacy Russells’ “Glitch Feminism”, and aligning what it means to be in the glitch — this internet realm, this space that’s trying to erase black femmes, but we were trying to reverse that.
j: We wanted it to feel like affirmations coming to life through that shared community and that visual, immersive experience. What does it feel like to be submerged into affirmations of your existence? And what does it feel like to share that with others and have it echoed and amplified? That’s what origins is about — it’s about tapping into femme energy being the origin of all life and existence, without being bound up in binary, but extending beyond that. It’s an ode to that spiritual energy.
Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Mputu, control (2019); Courtesy of the artist & black beyond _origins
Entering the _origins space is unlike any virtual experience I’ve had before — it truly is an otherworldly, liminal space that Black people are usually not extended the opportunity to even imagine ourselves in. A few years ago I saw Sondra Perry’s Typhoon coming on at the Serpentine & entering your gallery gave me a similar sensory experience. Pandemic aside, what draws you to using this virtual format to bring the _origins experience to life? Do you think _origins will ever have a place in our 3-D world?
j: To be in comparison with Sonda Perry is such an honor!
S: As for _origins existing as a digital space, it’s likely that it would not have been on the internet if it wasn’t for the pandemic because we’re so used to the physicality of art. It probably would’ve been in a gallery somewhere playing on a tv. There is that possibility, but I do like the idea of using the internet to display art, but now that I see it in cyberspace, I can’t see it anywhere else.
That honestly aligns with the whole theme of trying to stop erasure — once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever. People can tap into it whenever, whereas with a physical exhibition, there are archival images, but you can’t visit the exhibition anymore. It’s kind of cool to have this option where it’s everlasting. That breaks conventional molds of what an exhibition can be.
j: What you mentioned about _origins extending beyond what you would normally think of in regards to an exhibition is something that Shameekia and I spoke about. To echo something I said earlier about being obsessed with sci-fi, a lot of my childhood is rooted in that space. When you mentioned that these spaces are not accessible to our communities, I’ve always wanted to create these experiences for Black people through my work.
In regards to the design of the exhibition space, that was an inspiration as well. What does a virtual world look like? What does an alternate reality for Black femmes look like? What’s a black femme video game? Something that’s immersive, allows a moment of escapism and allows us to reimagine what our reality can be. What does that look and feel like?
What are you most looking forward to with the _origins relaunch?
S: I’m excited for people to see it and remember that it’s there. Sometimes the things that last forever kind of get pushed to the side because there’s always that idea that you can go back to it, and it will always be there.
j: It’s surprising, but I actually heard from the platform we posted the experience on that it’s one of the top 10 exhibitions this year, and it’s hard to perceive that unless you know the metrics. We weren’t sure how the show was performing and how many people were seeing it. With the relaunch, we want to make sure that the artists involved and our team can be seen and appreciated. We want to have as many Black people and Black femmes have the experience you had, that in itself — the imagination tied to this experience, is powerful! I keep saying “powerful” because seeing different examples of ourselves in the future and the present is what keeps us alive. It’s what allows us to exist in the future.
_origins Installation view featuring Vitoria Cribb‘s “prompt de comando” (2021). Courtesy of the artist and black beyond _origins
Legacy Russell’s “Glitch Feminism” appears in the curatorial statement for _origins and serves as a source of inspiration or even a foundation for the exhibition. Who are some other artists or projects that have inspired you over the last year?
S: Some artists that have inspired me and are related to _origins and black beyond in general: Simone Leigh, Salome Asega, Sondra Perry, Nam June Paik. I’m also inspired by Linda Goode Bryant, who is now doing Project EATS which is phenomenal, important work. Generally, I’m inspired by people who are out there and trying to help in any way possible.
When mainstream artists explore contemporary issues regarding race, class, and social-political issues, it tends to be in a neoliberal gaze because they’re in the art market and money is motive. That’s what happens when you live in a capitalist world, but you still want to live and have your dreams. There’s no wrong in that per se, but it’s just a different way of viewing and being.
It’s not often that you see avant-garde and otherworld ideas in mainstream, neoliberal art, which is why I was so impressed with the virtual exhibition space. I bet some of the artists will make work about identity — that’s inevitable, but being in that virtual space made me forget about politics and the world we’re in now. It’s something so refreshing.
S: Maybe this is where we’re at without verbally saying it to each other. I think we’re just trying to do what people like Toni Morrison or Arthur Jafa did. In an interview, he said he doesn’t make art for white people, he makes it in the Black gaze, and that’s always been my motive. We should talk about race constantly, but I think the way language is formed is important because it changes the politics. I don’t want to talk about identity for Black artists because identity often seems like we’re explaining or describing who we are instead of showing and creating what we’re made of. When you think of blackness as non-monolithic, to explain categorizes us in these little molds, which further divides us.
What’s a moment in your career that you’re proud of?
S: I’m proud of everything. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and if it’s not good I’m not showing it to anybody!
Zainab Aliyu, google my memories (2021). Courtesy of the artist and black beyond _origins
j: I’ve been learning to let go of perfectionism. _origins wasn’t perfect, and we just rolled with the imperfections. That in itself is speaking to Afronowism — how do we lean into these moments that aren’t necessarily ideal but continue to move forward? That’s something to be proud of.
Where do you see yourselves & black beyond in the future?
S: I have so many ideas! I can see us having a film screening with a future partner. I’m even considering something where we do community work. We found inspiration in the Black Panther Party, and I’ve been reflecting on their partnership with the Young Lords, which was a group of Latinx people in the South Bronx that organized in similar ways. They did a program called Lincoln Detox where they provided acupuncture services to drug users to help aid their addictions. Black and brown people didn’t have access to rehab then, and many don’t to this day. Something in that nature would be interesting for us to explore.
j: I’m down for it! I always thought that black beyond was about allowing these experiences to exist within communities where it’s inaccessible. Allowing community work to be a central part of what we’re doing would be great. Usually, these experiences, especially art experiences, feel so refined, and we’re usually not in those spaces. Sometimes you’ll see a few people of color, but it’s usually white audiences. What does it look like to bring that to our community? Finding a way to create that is the future.