Courtesy of Isabella Robbins and Alexandra M. Thomas

When tasked with organizing the History of Art Modern and Contemporary Forum programming for fall 2020, we chose to prioritize Black and Indigenous artists. As women of color navigating a predominantly white institution, we discovered in each other and in the artwork of Black and Indigenous artists, a possibility for an ethic of solidarity and care. As such, we virtually convened “Braiding Black and Indigenous Intimacies” on Oct. 30.

The afternoon featured presentations from two collaborative artist pairs: First Nations artists Jeneen Frei Njootli and Tsēmā Igharas and Black British artists Tamar Clarke-Brown and Isaac Kariuki. Njootli and Igharas lectured on their performance, “Sinuosity,” in which they weave fluorescent multi-colored flagging tape into a long braid that stretches between them — tethering themselves to one another in an intimate gesture that fuses ancestral modes with contemporary aesthetics. Clarke-Brown and Kariuki shared their performance and digital startup, “Coding: Braiding: Transmission,” in which Black women braid one another’s hair while go-pro cameras and movement detection software document coded messages to one another — grounding fugitive communication as an aesthetic practice, inspired by legends of enslaved women braiding escape routes into their hair. 

While neither work is explicitly about Indigenous and Black intimacies, they are both centered around the significance of braiding as a visual form and communal praxis. Not only is braiding essential in both communities, but it also becomes a metaphor for the entanglement and knottings of Blackness and Indigeneity. The discussions that ensued among the artists covered vast theoretical ground: affect, haptics (the sensation of touch), empire, decolonization, solidarity and what it means to be artists of color resisting neoliberal individualism, Indigenous dispossession and anti-Black racism.

A quote that we opened the event with remains pertinent: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Often attributed to Murri Aboriginal Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson, these words are a prayer, promise and demand for coalitional politics in which our freedom dreams are understood as intertwined instead of disparate. 

This encapsulates our motivation for this event: to think together about Black and Indigenous artistic and braiding practices at their intersections, as well as to explore the intimate collaborations between Igharas and Njootli, Clarke-Brown and Kariuki and their audiences. The event was born out of casual conversations between us, in which we often pondered the visual resonances of Black and Indigenous artists, solidarities and tensions.

Our goal was to create an open environment in which the artists were encouraged to respond to each other’s performance pieces. Whether it is known as a relational ethic or call and response, this format of communication itself disrupts the mainstream standards of academic programming that often prioritizes competition and elitism over care, kinship and loving dialogue. 

In finding the “throughlines” between their work, Kariuki pointed out that both collaborations consider, directly and indirectly, environmental degradation. Specifically, Kariuki noted the process of technological decay in CBT: “After the technology’s extracted, it degrades, and after it’s degraded it ends up in landfills that are on Indigenous land, or taken overseas to the global South.” “Sinuosity” directly comments on the harm that pipelines and other construction projects cause to Indigenous lands, communities and bodies through the use of flagging tape as part of the braiding process.

Because of the interactiveness of “Sinuosity,” Kariuki inquired about the role of the audience. Specifically, he was curious about how to avoid feeling “like you’re in a circus” in moments such as when audience members jumped rope with the braids connecting the two artists in “Sinuosity.” Njootli said that she is very aware of this concern and stated that “as Indigenous artists, we’re confronted with how we’re tangled up in that spectacle of history all the time … we [Indigenous peoples] haven’t had sovereignty over our own images.” As it relates to jumping rope with the braids, she asked, “How do we make space for Indigenous joy?” contending that the pleasure of communal happiness is one such way to thrive despite the colonial gaze.

We left the event feeling empowered by friendship, collaboration and creative practice as conducive to imagining and practicing decolonial lifeways. We hoped to share a generative model of collaboration and solidarity with the Yale community and beyond —- that was achieved. Over 80 people attended and witnessed the unfolding of the innovative dialogue. Its impact is everlasting — opening up space for more on-campus or Zoom events to encourage a loving and generous relational practice with the goal of crafting rebellion against white supremacy and settler colonialism.

Alexandra Thomas | alexandra.m.thomas@yale.edu

Isabella Robbins | isabella.robbins@yale.edu