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Q&A: Ralph Lemon tells story of life in American South

Lemon explores dynamics of racial relationships in Southern life through multiple mediums

Ralph Lemon, an internationally acclaimed artist whose medium spans dance, cinema and writing, came to Brown Oct. 6 to perform at the Ashamu Dance Studio. Called “Ceremonies Out of the Air,” his project merged storytelling and cinematography — Lemon narrated a story about life in the American South while a video in the background brought his words to life. Before the screening, Lemon spoke to The Herald about his role as a conceptual artist.

The Herald: Your show was very unique; what inspires your art the most?

Lemon: That is a good question. A simple question. I would say asking questions about existence.

Is there a specific reason why your work often features the American South? How do places and art interact for you?

Well, my family comes from the South, so there’s something immediate about it, just from a familial identity point of view. Also as a black American, there’s a sort of mythology that I find very charged and activating as an artist.

Place may be the locus. Or it was the locus at one time of my artistic practice. This idea of how place helps generate a certain type of creative practice. How do young West African performers think about dance from that particular kind of geography versus how do I think about dance?

Geography is culture, which demands a certain type of placement. So I think geography is key to art-making for me.

What is your favorite artistic medium through which to explore these themes, and why?

I don’t have a hierarchy. They’re like my children, and I love them all. I love my visual practice. I love my dance practice. I love my performance practice. They’re also all hard and challenging in different ways. And I think that is also part of the non-hierarchal relationship I have with them. None of them are easy. So they all demand a part of myself that needs to be addressed.

What were your struggles and triumphs when creating this piece?

I think just the questions that it brings up for me. This attempt at collapsing past, present and future time with a very fraught historical point in time and material — one that I relate to as a human being. Yet using it as art material feels a little risky or dangerous, you know? Because it feels like it should be kind of sacred to me, and yet I’m experimenting with it. I am interrogating its sacredness, so to speak. I think just to have a conversation with myself because I  feel so removed as a human being, other than racial politics.

Of course. Speaking in general about things that may seem socially taboo is often uncomfortable. 

Right. But that’s not a bad thing. I just think of how it makes me feel. My relationship to it, you know? What is it to be racial now? What is it to be black now? I feel like I’m living in a privileged black American sort of space. So I am trying to reconcile that, and yet I still experience prejudice. Nothing like black people did in the long, large part of being black in America. So I still want to honor that and interrogate that for myself.

 

— This interview has been edited for clarity and length.



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