“I really dreamed of a performance piece. And it was right after Kamala [Harris] was elected vice president,” explains Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons of the art film “When We Gather” that she created in collaboration with Okwui Okpokwasili, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and a number of other artists. “I had this dream of a large group of women dancing around the White House. … These lines, like rivers, circling the White House.”
The result is 3-minute video, directed by Codie Elaine Oliver, which is scheduled to premiere at whenwegather.art on Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. It’s accompanied by a 35-minute behind-the-scenes, interactive program “When We Gather: Together,” hosted by Wellesley College professor Nikki A. Greene. The project’s website is intended to invite participation, Campos-Pons says, “for people to really gather and create an opportunity for goodness and betterment wherever they are.”
“It was meant to be a cleansing ritual, the women were there because they were cleansing, cleansing all the bad energies from this area,” Campos-Pons tells me about the performance she initially imagined. It’s also intended to honor the election of Kamala Harris as U.S. Vice President, a “celebration of the arrival of an African, South Asian woman in such an important position of power.”
“What I was interested in,” Okpokwasili said in the “When We Gather: Together” video, “is not just that women achieve a level of power that they haven’t before, but how do they transform what it means to wield power, how you’re caring for the people who are going to come after you and honoring the efforts and the work and the blood and the tears and the sweat of the people who’ve come before you.”
The “When We Gather” video begins with historic photos of women–at work, in the military, in factories, in school, suffragettes, a woman holding a sign reading: “Equal position with equal pay.”
Clad in white dresses in the video, Campos-Pons, Okpokwasili, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Dell Marie Hamilton, Jana Harper, Lisa E. Harris and Samita Sinha dance separately outside an old building, under a bridge, in an old industrial hall, in an outdoor columned pavilion. They spin. They step along a spiral. They gaze into the camera. They hold a knotted blue ribbon–linking shots filmed with social-distancing in Brooklyn, Nashville, and Houston.
Their white outfits are meant to evoke the suffragists who won an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 granting women the right to vote–and the white attire Harris wore in their honor when she and Joseph Biden won the election. Campos-Pons adds, “In my ancestral tradition, this is the color that the women that do cleaning and healing wear in the Yoruba tradition.”
The knotted blue ribbon, Campos-Pons says, suggests “unity and also, in Cuba when you lost something, you make seven knots to find it.”
As a voice-over to the video, Emmy and Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee Alfre Woodard narrates LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’s poem: “so make way. make way fighters. make way for industrious ladies grand calabash matriarchs imagining necessary glory in tongues. the whistling air speaks: the house needs a cleaning.”
The video concludes with portraits of girls and women of many ages, ethnicities and cultures, and finally a photo of Harris and a statement she made at the Black Girls Lead Conference in August: “There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane.’ They are burdened by having only the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t let that burden you.”
“I am interested in and I am curious about this extraordinary force and extraordinary places that women could create together,” Campos-Pons explained in the accompanying “When We Gather: Together” video.
Campos-Pons had hoped to really organize a dance around the White House–with “a national call for women to come and participate” with pandemic social-distancing. “I was thinking we were going to do this in reality,” says Campos-Pons, who immigrated to Boston from Cuba in 1991 and taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts here for many years before moving to Nashville, Tennessee, to teach at Vanderbilt University in 2017. “We were thinking there was some possibility to do something real on the ground.”
But as the coronavirus continued to surge across the United States, the group opted to create the video instead. The project is produced by Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco and presented by Creative Time, New York.
For Campos-Pons, the project is a “look at the distinct history and complexity of what it was and what it means to be a woman in this century today,” acknowledging progress and recognizing “their gift to society.”
“The last four years have been so complex and so much division,” Campos-Pons says. The pandemic, “this terrible season of abuse of the Black body,” and “an election that seems to have been won squarely and clear by one group of people, but then has been challenged. … Lies became fact and are put in power, are sustained by many people.”
“When We Gather,” Campos-Pons says, is “a cleansing ceremony to get rid of all that. … Really cleansing, ancestral women energy, energy for caring and for compassion and for cleansing and for taking care of different things and making better.”
Campos-Pons says, “We gather to do good. We gather to try to understand each other better. We gather to clean and work over differences.”
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