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Monday, February 9, 2015

Talking with M. Lamar about "Negrogothic" and More

Posted By on Mon, Feb 9, 2015 at 8:35 AM

click to enlarge Discipline 2 - M.LAMAR
  • M.Lamar
  • Discipline 2

M. Lamar got a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute before going on to Yale to study sculpture, then after dropping out he returned to San Francisco to start a band. Now he has an exhibition at the SFAI, “Negrogothic,” which explores the history of slavery and violence through black and white video projection; a soundtrack by Lamar, combining his love of opera and metal; stills from the videos; and sculptural props.

Lamar’s work has been shown in New York, San Francisco, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, among others. He also appeared in Orange is the New Black, playing the pre-transition role of his twin sister, Laverne Cox.

At the opening of “Negrogothic,” Lamar sat down to talk about a variety of things, including why he’s glad to have his career rather than his sister’s, what he got out of the SFAI, and how having an installation there is like having an ex come crawling back.

click to enlarge Artist and performer M. Lamar - AMOS MAC
  • Amos Mac
  • Artist and performer M. Lamar
How does it affect your work having a famous sister?

My position on my sister is that I love her greatly. I’m really glad I’m not her because she is an actor who depends on others to write roles for her and to imagine a black trans person in some visionary way and usually it’s not a visionary way. I’m so glad I’m not her because I’m not waiting around for mostly white people in a mainstream industry to write and imagine me. Why I’m so happy I’m me and not her is that I have found a way to make my own work and cast myself in my own videos and to be the subject of the things I sing about in a complicated way so that I’m not relying on people who haven’t unlearned imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy [said as one word] – I say that all the time - to pay homage to me. My friend and mentor bell hooks, she coined that term to understand the condition under which we live.

I am an underground artist, I would say below the underground – and that there isn’t the same interest in Middle America about the kinds of things I make work about, but I don’t really care about that.

People always want to ask me about my sister because they’re so seduced by corporate media and not searching for these other things. What’s been great about Laverne’s fame is that it’s allowed people who would be interested in my work to find out about it. It’s sort of like free publicity for me if people are so inclined, they investigate what I do and some people find it useful. The people who have taken to my work over the last ten years and who have supported it have been people who need it desperately. Part of the phenomenon of my sister is people who need representations of a black trans people desperately. And I think that’s very wonderful that a white woman decided to write a role for a black trans person – that’s great on a certain level.

This is the thing that always gets edited out – my criticism is that I think most of the representations of black women are just horrible stereotypes, and it reinforces my disinterest in in representations of black people by white people. That doesn’t mean that white people shouldn’t still try to do better, but I’m more interested in people representing themselves. But at the same time, I think that Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry haven’t done the best job of representing black people. I’m very interested in the new show Empire, not because it’s good, but because it’s got all these black people not doing such stereotypical things.

What did you get out of going to school here?

I have to first talk about a class I took with Dewey Crumpler, this brilliant painter. I took a class with him on African American music. In that class he showed a video of this amazing black man who is wearing what I can describe as a pimp hat. It was Cecil Taylor, the jazz musician. I was, you know, 18,19, a child, and I had never seen a Negro like that. He was sitting there and he said [in a very stately voice] “One can be walking”- it reminded me of Jesse Norman, and I was very familiar with her, that kind of grand majestic regal blackness. So Cecil said, “One can be walking on a beautiful summer’s day and you look up and see a fuchsia awning. That is music.” And it just rocked me to my core because of the regality and the majesty. He was clearly a genius. I had never heard a note he played, but he was clearly brilliant, and I knew I wanted to be in some way to be like that. That happened right here in the lecture hall. Also in Dewey’s class he played a recording of Marian Williams, the great gospel singer, singing “Amazing Grace.” That was a game-over moment too. I was introduced to bell hooks work here, I saw Looking for Langston in the lecture hall- those are moments that have been really pivotal for me in my own art making and they happened here.

Also I think the philosophy here around making your art no matter what. No one is filling you with the idea you’re going to be some famous artist- you’re probably going to have to have some horrible day job. And then you go home and have to make your work and make it happen no matter what. I think I was instilled with that here, and that’s a great gift because I have outside of the art world, outside of institutionalization, in the underground. My work has had to mean something outside of a really small conversation, outside of the art world.

What’s it like to come back here with a show?

I went to Yale and I dropped out and started a rock band and left the art world behind, and what’s really satisfying – it’s like breaking up with someone who did you wrong and years later they come back begging for you to return. That’s what it’s like being back. It’s exciting to truly embody this rebel thing. Cornel West describes himself as a Jesus-loving free black man. I’m not Jesus-loving, but I am a free black man, and I think in order to be a free black man in an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, one has to be a rebel. One has to be pushing always, always against all these system. There is something beyond all the critiques I have of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in my work. There is longing there is love, there is desperation, and whenever someone is singing there is always hope.

Also what’s satisfying as I was walking through the installation is I think black people and queer people have always had to insert themselves in narratives that aren’t about them. The Negro spiritual is such a great example of that. I think of Marian Anderson singing in “Crucifixion,” “I saw my Lord, and he never said a mumbling word, not a word, not a word, not a word.” When I hear that, I hear a lynching. And it’s so gratifying for me because now I can have songs that are literally about a lynching. I think of Africans who composed this music were seeing their own catastrophic condition in these biblical narratives, but they had to, because of servitude, translate their experience through these narratives. One of the things I love about the Angela Davis book, “Blues, Women and Black Feminism” is she talks about how blues was a rejection of Christianity.

It seems like music was such a huge influence on you. Why didn’t you start a band to begin with?


That was always the plan. When I left Alabama to come here, I thought I would just do art school for a year, and then start a band. That was what I was thinking of as a 17-year-old when I left Alabama. But the art thing was going very well, and they kept giving me more money. At the end of first year I won all these award. I kept getting institutional validation. So I thought, “Well, this is nice!” So I thought I’ll keep doing this. Then in Yale, I kind of woke up and thought, “This wasn’t the plan,” but it was great. I got a lot of information to put into the music. Even back in the days of my first band Guillotine, people would say, “Your lyrics are really good. You’re saying something.” So that was gratifying. Having an incubator like this, you get to develop your own voice.

What does your work give people? You said some people are desperate for it.

The people who are outside of things in some way, who are troubled about things – it seems to speak to this troubled place a lot of people are living in. And I mean, that’s the blues.

Negrogothic” is at the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut), through Feb. 28. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free. Lamar will perform Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche on Friday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m.
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Emily Wilson

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