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News and updates from around the Ujima Ecosystem.

Velvet Sentences Edition: An Interview With Kameelah Janan Rasheed, artist and cultural practitioner

In January, Rachel Rizzo (an artist and educator based in Boston, MA) brought a small group of graduate students studying Art Education to Emerson Contemporary to experience Kameelah Janan Rasheed's show all velvet sentences as manifesto, Like a lesson against smooth language or an invitation to be feral hypertext. Rachel and each of her students (Lucas Amaral, Paris Stone, and Wilton Tejeda) had a different experience with Janan Rasheed’s work– as viewers, each performed their own dance of moving toward and away, reading the fine print and trying to discern the larger images and thematic lines of inquiry within the work.

Rasheed’s work is presented in a manner that defies easy categorization. Collage, assemblage, video installation, photography, sound, and wall text work together creating an immersive experience, inviting us to decode as if reading a traditional text, and then collapsing all apparent meanings while new ones emerge. The environment became a symbolic journey through an ambiguous and relational space, asking participants to create their own meaning as they engaged with the inherent messiness and generative nature of language, sound and image.

Rizzo and her students caught up with Janan Rasheed over email to learn more, and to probe her practice.


Paris Stone: Your practice spans work as an educator, visual artist, consultant, and "learner"; do you find that one of these modes is a more dominant force in your practice, or do they all equally inform each other?

Kameelah Janan Rasheed: I am not concerned about the hierarchy between my different working modes in my practice. I am invested in exploring and revising the relationship between these methods. I am interested in ecosystemic thinking. I ask how my curiosity about quantum physics relates to my curiosity about writing systems. I know that being a learner deeply influences my approach to interdisciplinary projects and my commitment to approaching my work with the desire to be led down a variety of rabbit holes. 

Lucas Amaral: Your website features your written biography from ages 6 and 7. How does the essence of your childhood, as reflected in those early writings, manifest or resonate in your work? Where does young Kameelah shine through?

KJR: In curiosity and a complete disregard for what is popular or trending. Young Kameelah was quite feral and peculiar, and I am making my way back to her. I am moving at the pace of my interests, going on my own quests, and asking the questions that are most urgent to me. I prioritize questions over answers and spend much of my time in play.

Wilton Tejeda: You taught in primary and secondary education settings at the beginning of your career; what motivated your pivot to museums, working closer with adults in art or educational institutions?

KJR: I have always worked across a range of learning environments. When I left high school teaching in 2013, I was very exhausted. I loved my students; however, I did not enjoy the structural context that made teaching very difficult. I went into non-profit work afterward, with the desire to work at a more structural level. Since leaving that job in 2022, I have endeavored to support  practitioners in designing radical and expansive learning experiences through my consulting business, Orange Tangent Study. Every system has its affordances and having spent the last 20 or so years in the midst of those affordances, I am committed to exploring the possibilities of building other structures for learning that are invested in learning as a spiritual, embodied, and joyful ritual, rather than solely a demonstration of academic dominance or competition.

Rachel Rizzo: As an educator in public schools, there is an overwhelming emphasis on literacy in the traditional sense. The pressure for young students to be “literate” in a specific, measurable way (ie: standardized reading and writing comprehension tests) can create limitations and holes in our evaluation and understanding of “intelligence” and “competence”. You have said, “All learning is relational”–do you see a relationship between art education/artistic “literacy” and notions of traditional literacy as a learner and educator?

KJR: Traditional literacy has gotten us exactly where we are now – the ability to decode, but not connect, expand, or evaluate. To assume that literacy ends at the ability to decode words robs all of us of the magnificent possibilities and joys of interdisciplinary literacy which facilitates the type of interdisciplinary curiosity that nurtures the sort of innovation we urgently need. In my ideal learning environment, students would learn printmaking alongside material sciences (fluid dynamics, chemical interactions, substrate interaction), kinesthetics (how the body moves with the machine in the process of printing), religious studies (the birth of printing systems through the desire to print religious works), and more! This is just one example of the relational possibilities. 

Kameelah Janan Rasheed, keeping count, Annotated, animation still, 2021-2023

WT: Do you consider “accessibility” in reaching towards an audience who may not have an education in contemporary art practices? Do these considerations change when thinking about your audiences for works that are shown in museums and galleries versus public works? 

KJR: I do not like to assume a universal approach to accessibility, nor am I interested in creating work as a didactic introduction to contemporary art. I would never infantilize an audience. A limited experience with contemporary art does not make the work inaccessible; rather, the ways that many people have been conditioned toward an extractive relationship with art are what makes these experiences inaccessible. I have witnessed justified hesitancy from museum-goers when asked what they think about works because they are afraid to say the “wrong answer.” This sort of extraction – viewing the work as a means to figure out the right answer, is the problem. There is no right answer; the work is not an exam. Art is an invitation to build associative networks between what is legible to you and your other experiences. The audience must move beyond that default when a work does not allow that particular plug-and-play approach. This suspension or impossibility of the default is what I am interested in. 

PS: You’ve spoken in the past of your concerns about AI regarding consent and preservation, but also of the “oracle-like quality” of technologies like autocorrect. As multiple modes of artificial intelligences become accessible to the general public, do you feel that AI is useful to your artistic practice or to the arts in general?

KJR: My interest in machine learning is related to my concern with knowledge production and labor. Machine learning involves countless layers of invisibilized (not invisible) labor. I engage with machine learning as a form of research concerning translation across domains, late capitalism, and the poetics of protocols. 

LA: In your interview with Nicole Acheampong, you mentioned the inclination to revise your book, No New Theories, but finally came to the conclusion that “..a book is not the final time you get to speak.” Do you feel the same urge for revision after your work has been installed and viewed?

KJR: Absolutely! There are many different registers of revision. There can be a material revision to the work. There could also be a spatial revision of the work in a given architecture. There are also the less visible registers of revision, such as my relationship to the work itself or the conceptual container in which the work lives. No one can “see” these revisions, but they are just as urgent and necessary.

RR: While scouring your website (highly recommended), one of the first things I found was a transcript of a conversation between Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler from 1998 at MIT. In the conversation, Butler refers to her practice of reading and listening to multiple texts at a time, letting “the ideas they present bounce off one another... simmer, reproduce in some odd way”. She refers to this practice as a kind of “primitive hypertext”. You reference Butler’s notion of “primitive hypertext” as foundational to your practice. The show at Emerson Contemporary is entitled, 

Kameelah Janan Rasheed: all velvet sentences as manifesto, Like a lesson against smooth language or an invitation to be feral hypertext. 

What, if any, is the relationship between “primitive” and “feral” hypertext?

KJR: In a class I taught at the School for Poetic Computation, a student noted that the etymology of the word “primitive” is the original, coming before the derivative. We typically associate it with so-called “backward” people or “uncivilized” people. Before the word was corrupted by colonial projections of indigenous peoples, it was a reminder of the thing that was first. In this way, I see a lot of connections to the feral or to a certain wildness. I think about the primitive as the feral – or the thing that exists before it is domesticated or pushed through a sieve or disciplined. The thing that carries all the dirty data and unassimilable bits. That which exists before it has to be rendered legible. The feral and the primitive are undisciplined and I am interested in the generative qualities of choosing something outside of a container or pre-designed pathway. 


Kameelah Janan Rasheed, a learner* born in East Palo Alto, CA, explores writing practices across all species, states of living, states of consciousness, and substrates. With an interest in the poetics and possibilities of loss, ruin, and failure in the reading and writing process, Rasheed is interested in Black knowledge production and fugitivity. You can learn more about her practice in the Aga Khan Museum - This Being Human Podcast (2023) Art 21 documentary (2021), a recent interview in Art in America (2021).

Drawing on her regional East Palo Alto (Northern California) Black vernacular upbringing, Islamic mysticism, neo-animism, and quantum physics, Rasheed creates books that change over time due to reader interaction; sprawling installations mirroring Octavia Estelle Butler’s ecosystemic concept of “primitive hypertext”; prints, photographs, paintings, and drawings that allow for some element of chemical and biological change over time; performance lectures that draw on her experience with improv and high school teaching; ergodic browser-based essays; writing games and constraints; creative code; and other forms yet to be determined.

Her solo show at the Emerson Media Arts Gallery, all velvet sentences as manifesto, Like a lesson against smooth language or an invitation to be feral hypertext, is open until March 23rd.

Rasheed lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

Lucas Amaral, an artist and educator, operates within the diverse landscapes of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. His artistic and pedagogical pursuits are centered around exploring the relationship between technical proficiency and experimental creativity in the realm of art.

Paris Stone is an artist and art educator based in Bedford MA. Her work focuses on pen and pencil portraiture, exploring themes of fear and the supernatural.

Wilton Tejeda is a Boston-based artist and educator who has challenged himself artistically in an effort to make sense of the growing gentrification in the local surrounding neighborhoods of Boston. His most recent artwork captures cultural aesthetics while igniting awareness of habitats and cultures that are coined “ugly” from hegemonic ideology. 

Rachel Rizzo is an artist and educator based in Boston, MA. Her practice as an artist and educator feed and enhance each other. Her paintings, prints and drawings explore personal history and identity, fantasy and escape, symbolism and abstraction as well as the way we interact with images and icons in digital and physical space.


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