On Healing and Self-Determination: An Interview with Juliana Huxtable

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Juliana Huxtable is an all-around badass multimedia artist and DJ based in New York. Her work has been featured at the MoMA and the New Museum, as well as throughout various venues of New York nightlife.

I had the opportunity to chat with Juliana about issues of identity and healing, queer covens, and the radical potential of the femme fatale. Here’s that conversation:

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

Andy Li (AL): There’s been a lot of suffering on campuses and around the world, not only recently but always, under institutions rooted in anti-Black racism and white supremacy. I’m wondering about your thoughts on finding space for healing amidst this realm of suffering, seeing as themes of healing and prayer run through some of your work.

Juliana Huxtable (JH): I think the most important thing is just to have a community of people that you can sort of stick with. College for me, in a lot of ways, was very traumatic. I went to school in upstate New York and it was this sort of insidious, institutional, liberal racism, on the one hand. Which can get to a point where it’s just suffocating. And then there’s this sort of racism of being upstate, and sort of the more working-class, white racism which often turned into being followed by trucks and being called a n——r, like, things like that happened to us in really intense ways. And I had a lot of anger and aggression… I was totally emotional. I was like a crazy person when I left college, largely because of the racial dynamic of it.

I think for me it’s really important to find a community and find spaces [for community]. I think dancing is really therapeutic. We threw parties, that’s what I did. And we would literally just have the most crazy communion, like in, I think it’s in Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon, where it’s about the dance circle. I think everyone should read that. That’s where my religion came from, ‘cause I’m not a religious person. That was really a source of healing for me. That was a source of ecstatic release for me. And then writing, also. But really the community was so important. We did dinners, we did dances, we would use school resources to get away from campus, so that we could try and recoup our energy from constantly having to struggle with the institution to address the long list of racial harms that were happening.

AL: Yeah, like understanding how even though we’re at these oppressive institutions, we can use the resources that they have to our own advantage.

JH: Yeah, exploit those resources. Exploit the shit out of them.

AL: Exactly, ‘cause we’re here and we’re existing through it. We’re trying to survive through it. And why not? We talk about the difference between acknowledging our privilege to be at these institutions of higher learning, and actually thinking about how we who are oppressed—the university is predicated on not allowing us to exist, or not allowing us to live fully. So it’s this thing we have to realize, when yes, there’s a level of privilege that comes with being here, but also understanding that they didn’t want us here anyway.

JH: Right, and they’re shocked.

AL: So speaking of these ideas of community, can you talk about your thoughts on queer covens, such as the arts collective you belong to, the House of Ladosha? How do these spaces help one understand identity alongside community?

JH: All of my communities function, on the one hand, for safety and protection and support. But they’re also a way of finding people that you share visions of the world with. Because I think that oftentimes queer people have really powerful visions of alternate worlds and utopias, which is why I think nightlife and queer worlds go hand in hand. Which is why I think queer people and visual art go together in such dynamic ways. I think that when you are cut out from the world that you have inherited, I think that [being cut out] is a force that creates. And so for me it’s about finding, not only a sense of safety and support, but beyond that.

Like the House of Ladosha, we have shared visions of the world. The way we see the world, the way we conceptualize the world, the way our imaginations manifest, are all in conversation with each other in ways that I think are productive. And so it’s a space for all of us to explore our own identities. Like the way that our house names [its members]. Everyone obviously is Ladosha, like I’m Juliana Huxtable Ladosha, but I’m also just Juliana Huxtable. There’s not a tension between the two, they can just coexist.

ALPerforma 15 describes your work as exploring “the fragmented, mutating, and mutable nature of identity, utilizing race, gender, and queerness as mediums to explore the possibilities of a post-identity politics.” How does your work understand identity as something always having been fragmented, always having a definition, but also constantly changing?

JH: Well I think identity is always fragmented. I think it’s inherently fragmented. I think the problem is the way identity is spoken about and has historically been approached, even in an art context. [Identity] has been positioned as if it’s a positive existence. And I think that for a certain period of time, it had to be that way as a responsive gesture to the lack of so much. Because for so long, like if you think about Blackness, it was an absence in art. It was an absence. And the only sort of presence that it did have was as like a maid, or as these secondary roles, if there at all. They generally only functioned as an absence.

So I think identity politics made it this thing where Blackness, queerness, womanness, became these categories that were asserted. And I think the fact that they were asserted became conflated with the fixed nature of what they mean, especially when they were magnified onto the level of a collective sort of statement. And I really find a lot of issues with that. Which is why I don’t like for my work to be categorized.

My work deals with Blackness, and is in so many ways about Blackness as much as it is other things, but I don’t want to be categorized under Black art, because I think what Black art has come to represent is actually really conservative. It’s really institutionalized. It represents a very specific set of artists and what they do, and what their practices are. When I think of Black art I think of Kehinde Wiley, I think of Mickalene Thomas. I think of, on the more interesting spectrum, in terms of my own relationship to that title, [Kara Walker.] I love Kara Walker’s work. But I find that [the category of Black art] is really fixed.

So I really want to just use what I’m doing. Because by virtue of what I’m exploring, regardless of how I see my work, people [will say that] my work deals with what has been categorized and described as identity. I think my work deals with a lot more than that. I basically am just using that medium [of identity] and hopefully can get to a place where I can explode that, because I don’t believe in an identity politics, really. I think that clinging and holding onto that term, and everything that loads that term and gives it its form and its shape and its signification, is kind of conservative and really specific.

AL: Would you say that you believe in this idea of a “post-identity politics”?

JH: In the sense of getting past what that identity signifies, yes. But the idea of an identity to me as a sort of theoretical paradigm, no. Because obviously I think that that’s something that everyone’s dealing with. I don’t think that anyone’s beyond the trappings of identity, but I think that I do believe in the idea of getting past what identity signifies and currently means.

AL: In one of your prints for the Universal Crop Tops For All the Self Canonized States of Becoming series, you write about the advent of the mix over song, which answers the need and prayer for duration, permeance, and permanence. How does the club and this mix-over-song concept inform your work in the digital? How does duration, permeance, and permanence work with these ideas of identity?

JH: When I was writing that, in some ways I saw that piece as something maybe approximating a manifesto. To me, a song is fixed. It’s attached to an album, you buy it, it’s a singular object. And it’s a way of relating to a music that you receive as it’s been constructed.

I think that the music culture represents a shift that’s happening in larger culture. Like I do listen to individual songs. I listen to them as a DJ, and I think that the idea of a DJ is a model for the way that a lot of people are actually now relating to music. When you hear a Rihanna song, you’re listening to that song as much as you are also listening to the possibilities of the fifty thousand remixes, the nuances, the way it could be played out in a mix.

And I think that that represents the same way where I actually think we’re getting to a place where the underpinnings of static identity are just being erupted. Sometimes in ways that are really problematic, but I think they’re necessary nonetheless. Like I feel like the relationship between Blackness and the cultural signifiers of Blackness and people’s ability to feel like they can play in that. Iggy Azalea, or something like that. I think the way that she deals with it is ignorant and problematic, but I think that it represents what’s happening. The signifiers that are presumed to be static are being freed.

To the same degree that I’m frustrated and annoyed and just wanna roll my eyes at someone like Iggy Azalea, I’m also liberated by a film like Afro-Punk. If that was made now, I don’t think that would feel so necessary. I think [Iggy Azalea and Afro-Punk are] getting at similar things. So to me the idea of the mix over the song represented that way of shaking out the static, packaged nature [of signifiers]. Obviously there’s different ways [in which this happens]. It’s not necessarily radical or escaping corporate culture—I think it’s insidious in other ways. But I think there’s also a lot of productive things that are coming out of [this moment]. I think image culture, the freedom of images and the way they’re circulated now, is really similar to that.

That relationship [of the mix over the song] is also a very romantic gesture, because a mix is really long. And I think the presumption in terms of a more critical lens of the way people consume media nowadays would be to suggest that, someone sitting down to listen to a fifty minute mix doesn’t necessarily make sense in that context because we’re searching for these little pieces to instantly consume. But I think that [the mix] represents some of the more positive aspects of consumption. Reusing and rematerializing is happening now. I love the idea of the mix as a signifier of that.

AL: In another print, Untitled (For Stewart), you write about the empowerment within the hypersexualized femme fatale in video games to fight off the misogynist violence within the gaming community. Considering the pushback from many against the femme fatale as a figure of empowerment due to her one-dimensionality, how do you understand the femme fatale as a way to express femininity and empowerment?

JH: I think that for me it was really productive. As much as I understand the construction of femininity and hypersexualized women, and the almost pornographic nature of the way women are portrayed in video games, it’s problematic in a lot of ways, it also nonetheless was still a very powerful moment of refusal.

Like Princess Peach is giggling and blushing, when the other characters look at her. That sort of relationship, it’s really problematic. But I loved using that, and I was like, she’s giggling, and to me, it was so explicit. I didn’t think of it in the word “feminist,” or anything like that, but I was like, I am going to use this character. And I was so bad at video games before, and then I started picking the female characters, and then all of this super loaded aggression represented so much more. And I became so good, and I was beating all of the other kids. And they were furious!

I think it relates now to where people are finally able to move beyond this second-wave feminist, almost like a demonizing of femininity. Because anything feminine approximated a stereotype of womanhood, which was inherently linked to the male gaze, [and that gaze] was inherently problematized. And so I think [the femme fatale] is about the way that feminism is now being forced to deal with the nuances of women’s sexuality [in connection] to men. It’s also about making the distinction between something that might be seen as having to do with the male gaze and something just being about forms of self-pleasure. I think there are connections there, in a lot of ways.

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