Grace Wales Bon­ner in con­ver­sa­tion with Solange

Following the first live performance of When I Get Home documented here, Grace speaks to Solange about devotion, the spectrum of research that informs her work, and the voices that have helped her better understand herself.

Grace Wales Bon­ner is of a new breed of mul­ti-hyphen­ate cre­atives, renowned and respect­ed for her abil­i­ty to explore the themes of iden­ti­ty and self-expres­sion through the vehi­cles of fash­ion, lit­er­a­ture, music and art.

It’s the British-Jamaican designer’s metic­u­lous, mul­ti-sen­so­ry approach and her abil­i­ty to cross-pol­li­nate ref­er­ences from a mul­ti­tude of sources that sees her stand out as one of the most inno­v­a­tive design­ers of her gen­er­a­tion, some­thing that was evi­dent in her A Time For New Dreams exhi­bi­tion that took place at London’s Ser­pen­tine Gal­leries at the start of the year. Titled after Ben Okri’s col­lec­tion of essays of the same name, the exhi­bi­tion explored black cul­tur­al and aes­thet­ic prac­tices and the themes of mys­ti­cism and rit­u­al that tran­scend them. Key to the exhi­bi­tion, was the shrine – both its posi­tion as a gate­way to alter­na­tive worlds, beliefs, pos­si­bil­i­ties and mys­ti­cal prac­tices, and its pur­pose as a phys­i­cal enti­ty that influ­ences the activ­i­ties and rit­u­als that occur in the space that might sur­round it. 

Key to Grace’s prac­tice is col­lab­o­ra­tion – some­thing she incor­po­rat­ed into her A Time For New Dreams exhi­bi­tion, in the shape of Devo­tion­al Sound”, an off-site addi­tion to the pro­gramme that fea­tured musi­cian, mys­tic and laugh­ing-med­i­ta­tion teacher Laraa­ji, exper­i­men­tal artist Klein, and singer-song­writer Sam­pha. As a seam­less night-long per­for­mance for­mat, Devo­tion­al Sound cen­tres around med­i­ta­tion and the idea of cre­at­ing a sacred envi­ron­ment in which guests can expe­ri­ence music, one that removes the hier­ar­chy between the audi­ence and the artists.

The sec­ond iter­a­tion of Devo­tion­al Sound took place at the start of the month at St. Peter’s Church, a beau­ti­ful min­i­mal­ist church in mid­town Man­hat­tan, New York, that’s held memo­ri­als for both Jean-Michel Basquiat and John Coltrane. Revolv­ing around the idea of Ecsta­t­ic Recital’ – the name giv­en to the designer’s SS19 col­lec­tion, of which some pieces were on show at the church entrance – Grace drew upon the con­cep­tu­al per­for­mance and sculp­tur­al work of the late Amer­i­can mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary artist Ter­ry Adkins when curat­ing and con­cept­ing the night, par­tic­u­lar­ly the idea that the rep­e­ti­tion of sounds can open a path­way to uni­ver­sal con­scious­ness. Both a trib­ute to his con­tri­bu­tion as an artist and to his for­mat, the evening saw per­for­mances from Laara­ji, Stand­ing on the Cor­ner and none oth­er than Solange, who Grace had asked to respond to the idea of ecsta­t­ic recital.

Guests were invit­ed to sip tea while sit­ting on blan­kets, and were instruct­ed to bring flow­ers for a shrine at the feet of Laraa­ji, whose per­for­mance was fol­lowed by poet­ic trib­utes to Adkins, first in words, then on piano with mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist Bri­an Jack­son – who famous­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed with the late Gil Scott-Heron on 1971’s Pieces of a Man. Stand­ing on the Cor­ner – a group of noise­mak­ers led by 23-year-old Gio Esco­bar – ener­gised the crowds into a cacoph­o­n­ic fer­vor with a call-and-response on drums, sax and cello.

As for Solange, she per­formed a de fac­to med­ley from her lat­est album When I Get Home to an audi­ence – that includ­ed design­er Tel­far Clemens, bal­ladeer Zsela Thomp­son and pro­duc­er Dev Hynes – for the very first time. The space deserved her, and her spell­bind­ing per­for­mance elec­tri­fied the audience.

While Grace sees fash­ion as an intu­itive means to under­stand­ing her own her­itage, Solange’s music is a son­ic man­i­fes­ta­tion of her per­son­al explo­ration of her own iden­ti­ty and the com­plex­i­ties of the black Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence. Her lat­est release, When I get Home, is a return to her roots, her home, and as Solange explains, devo­tion was real­ly a fun­da­men­tal part of cre­at­ing the album.” Devo­tion for self, devo­tion for joy, devo­tion for chas­ing what­ev­er spir­i­tu­al peaks and val­leys you are try­ing to reach and main­tain. For me, that devo­tion tran­scends in so many ways.” Grace speaks to Solange.

Grace: I am so grate­ful for your art. I con­nect­ed with When I Get Home on a deep lev­el. To me it was so much about feel­ing, and the music cir­cu­lat­ed around deep emo­tions and phys­i­cal­i­ty. The work feels so essen­tial for these times. What were your inten­tions for the album, and how did you trans­late that kind of ener­gy into sound?

Solange: I am equal­ly grate­ful for your work Grace, in abun­dance! These words and your response to the album mean a hell of a lot and I will for­ev­er hold them close. I guess in the begin­ning there were no inten­tions for mak­ing this record since I real­ly didn’t have any inten­tions on mak­ing a new album so soon. I start­ed writ­ing these songs out of a need for an expres­sion of fear and uncer­tain­ty for many things that were hap­pen­ing in my life. I’d say main­ly my health and well­ness, but once I sur­ren­dered to the peace in the unknown, it real­ly did lead me home. I was going through a per­son­al shift and evo­lu­tion after years of being afraid of what I would hear if I real­ly silenced myself. That thought real­ly crip­pled me a bunch. I think when I let go of that I knew exact­ly how the son­ic lan­guage need­ed to be trans­lat­ed. I think to what you’ve said, so much of my past work was about hav­ing some­thing I felt was real­ly cru­cial to say, and this time it was tru­ly about hav­ing so much to feel. I fear a lot! I can be a real­ly over ana­lyt­i­cal scary ass. And I felt such a sense of cer­tain­ty while cre­at­ing this work. I felt real­ly sure and intu­itive. I wasn’t striv­ing for per­fec­tion. I real­ly want­ed to cre­ate a moment in time, a space, a val­ley, an exer­cise, and I just feel so appre­cia­tive for feel­ing that free­dom. I’m so grate­ful for all of the things and expe­ri­ences and hands that helped me to bring it all into fruition and that it’s out in the world.

Grace: I can relate to that idea of work­ing intu­itive­ly, and being moti­vat­ed by anoth­er kind of ener­gy. I am inter­est­ed in explor­ing lin­eage, and how those who have come before me inform my work and shape the pos­si­bil­i­ties for future gen­er­a­tions. Who are the artists you feel form your cre­ative lin­eage? And who do you feel are your cre­ative con­tem­po­raries who con­tin­ue the lega­cy from that grounding? 

Solange: Oh wow so many! There are so many artists who I feel left the sketch­es for me, you know. Some as writ­ers, some musi­cal­ly, some visu­al­ly, but real­ly just all women who help me to feel seen or to under­stand myself bet­ter. Kelis is so impor­tant to me in terms of a tra­jec­to­ry of a very spe­cial and need­ed voice in the world. Some­one who seemed to always allow them­selves the space to unapolo­get­i­cal­ly evolve, but some­one who holds so much impor­tant space in the way so many black women were are able to see them­selves and under­stand the val­ue in build­ing a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who con­nect and engage in your work and who cel­e­brate in your evo­lu­tion, you know. 

But that list is so long! We’d be here all day! [laughs] Deb­bie Allen, Syree­ta Wright, Badu, Alice Coltrane, Lynette Yiadom, Wangechi, Augus­ta Sav­age, Eva Hesse, Kara Walk­er, Lau­ren Ander­son my favorite bal­le­ri­na since I was in 5th grade… Mis­sy Elliot is my queen of queens. I’ve learned so much from the work of all of these women. I also real­ly con­nect with hav­ing to accept that their work is not and has not been for me, that it’s for them! Before I put the album out I thought about the sort of divi­sive­ness that it might bring, and many of these women helped me to feel assur­ance in stand­ing firm in my expres­sions. But yeah, I’m also learn­ing so much from so many who are mak­ing new ter­ri­to­ries for us all you know – Toyin Ojih Odu­to­la, Kelela, Armi­na Mus­sa. I can’t get over Son­dra Perry’s work – shout out to Hous­ton! Frances Bodoma, Jenn Nikru, Autumn Knight (who’s also from Hous­ton and has a piece for Belt­way in my film). Tier­ra Whack and Megan Thee Stal­lion are both so bril­liant! Every­body is just killing shit right now. 

Grace: That’s a real­ly gen­er­ous list. I can see you real­ly embrace your peo­ple, and treat your com­mu­ni­ty with ten­der­ness. How do you think we can best sup­port and show love to our com­mu­ni­ties in these times we are liv­ing in?

Solange: I real­ly am not even a thought with­out my peo­ple! I just want to rec­i­p­ro­cate what that means to me.

Grace: Your approach as an artist seems holis­tic in that it draws upon a broad spec­trum of research, I would be inter­est­ed to know what ref­er­ences informed the album – film, sound, move­ment, literature?

Solange: There were so many guides dur­ing the process of this album. I real­ly did try to just carve out new ways and new lan­guages to feel all these things. I played a lot with rep­e­ti­tion as mantra as mantra, and express­ing min­i­mal­ism as a practice…but I guess what’s most impor­tant is just like want­i­ng to artic­u­late the feel­ings of what’s at the core of what I feel when I’m at home in Hous­ton. Like the pic­tures of all the places and peo­ple who real­ly made me who I am. Like if the album had a tem­per­a­ture, how do I get it to feel the degrees of Kings Flea Mar­ket or the Rothko chapel or the smell of my mama’s hair salon.

I held Ste­vie Wonder’s Jour­ney Through the Secret Life of Plants and Play­boi Carti’s last album real close. I lis­tened to a lot of Steve Reich and Ter­ry Riley. The film The Wiz will always be a fun­da­men­tal part of how I see the world. Like some­body pleeeease let me direct that remake! I watched a lot of Bugs­by Berkley and Heretic, a piece I real­ly relate to by Martha Gra­ham. But also just like clips on you tube of Zyde­co Line Dances, trail rides, and Selena’s live per­for­mances. Shit that just feels like home. I start­ed to read this book Crop Cir­cles: Har­bin­gers of World Change by Alick Bartholomew at the start of this album which I would say is equal­ly about crop cir­cles but main­ly about spir­i­tu­al and envi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness and the mys­ter­ies of sym­bol­ism and ener­getic pull in sacred geom­e­try. I don’t real­ly have a real answer for why sym­me­try and geom­e­try make me feel safe. My under­stand­ing is pure­ly a reac­tion to the safe­ty it makes me feel. I think it must have some­thing to do with the feel­ings of not hav­ing a lot of con­trol over my world as a young per­son. The align­ment of things through the expres­sions of time and space. I tried to chan­nel that in the record for sure. I also kept Sun Ra + Ayé Aton: Space, Inte­ri­ors and Exte­ri­ors, 1972 close by. Glenn Ligon wrote the for­ward and there’s a part where he writes about Sun Ra’s implor­ing of black peo­ple to pay close atten­tion to the pow­er of words, to strive for wis­dom and beau­ty, and to seek immor­tal­i­ty”. I payed real close atten­tion to these ideas and they were a guide for sure.

Grace: You seem to have such a com­plete vision, yet you are also open to col­lab­o­ra­tion. How do you open up and let peo­ple into your prac­tice, what is your process when it comes to cre­at­ing like this?

Solange: It can be com­plex but it’s ulti­mate­ly so reward­ing and I think at the foun­da­tion of it all I real­ly just love peo­ple! I love human inter­ac­tion and the inti­ma­cy of get­ting to know some­one through their choic­es. I’m also just real­ly inter­est­ed over­all in how our inter­ac­tions with one anoth­er can change the course of our days, sec­ond by sec­ond, minute to minute, day by day. Our lives are all so inter­twined based off of these inter­ac­tions and I just love the idea of apply­ing that to the work. It feels real­ly good in know­ing that I get to cre­ate this a lit­tle land­scape and nar­ra­tive through music and to have peo­ple to share and bring real sin­cer­i­ty to that, there’s so much love and trust there. There were some real­ly spe­cial moments too. Like get­ting to comp and edit Play­boi Carti’s verse, that shit gave me goose­bumps. All the per­cus­sion sounds he made. Cassie is one of my favorite voic­es, so much puri­ty and air and sensuality…and get­ting to have that ener­gy on Way to the Show just ele­vat­ed the song so much! The Dream is such a genius, it just pours out of him like water. The way Alme­da all came togeth­er was me solo­ing Pharrell’s drum loop from anoth­er song we worked on, sam­pling Metro Boomin’s Hold Up from Stay Flo and mak­ing loops from a piano rift John Kir­by did.…pitching every­thing down, refor­mat­ting the song back­wards and chop­ping it. That col­lab­o­ra­tive ener­gy and the con­tri­bu­tions that come from it is all in that song and you feel each fin­ger­print so strongly!

Grace: I have been think­ing about Devo­tion­al Sound as a sacred space to expe­ri­ence music. With the New York iter­a­tion I asked you to respond to the idea of ecsta­t­ic recital, how did you con­nect to those vibra­tions with your per­for­mance? How do you con­nect to devo­tion through your performances?

Solange: I real­ly relat­ed to it because devo­tion was real­ly a fun­da­men­tal part of cre­at­ing the album. Devo­tion for self, devo­tion for joy, devo­tion for chas­ing what­ev­er spir­i­tu­al peaks and val­leys you are try­ing to reach and main­tain. For me, that devo­tion tran­scends in so many ways. Med­i­ta­tion, move­ment, silence, son­ic fre­quen­cies, but also just like get­ting my hair done … mak­ing sure the lace isn’t show­ing [laughs] that kind of devo­tion to tak­ing care of myself. We deserve to express that devo­tion to our­selves how­ev­er it may look for us. I approach per­for­mance as the­ater, but it is still real­ly impor­tant that I am present as myself. Get­ting to express that through this idea of ecsta­t­ic recital was real­ly about find­ing one or two sounds in each piece that I could inter­pret in a mul­ti­tude of ways and what nat­u­ral­ly hap­pened with that kind of rep­e­ti­tion was a sort of spir­i­tu­al crescen­do by the time we got to the end of the show. So much of my album and the film is about run­ning from the spir­it. I used to be real scared of what it would do to peo­ple in church and if it came after me what would hap­pen. I want­ed that thang far far away. For me the idea of express­ing ecsta­t­ic recital is about sur­ren­der­ing and invit­ing that spir­it to jump into you and being pre­pared to let it take you to places. Count it all joy!

Grace: How does your out­put and approach speak to free­dom? Does the envi­ron­ment you cre­ate in, inform your approach?

Solange: I think so much of my approach is just world build­ing. Just try­ing to build new worlds and spaces for us to feel seen and safe in and to explore. And also to real­ly try and under­stand myself bet­ter. To answer the ques­tions about myself I might even be afraid to think out loud. I feel like cre­at­ing these lit­tle worlds makes me feel less afraid to get to the bot­tom of it.

Grace: I can relate to that. I respect the time and pri­va­cy you seemed to allow your­self while work­ing on this album. How do you resist out­side pres­sures, and hold space and bound­aries around your cre­ative production?

Solange: It can be dif­fi­cult and to be hon­est over time I’ve become a lot more depen­dent on need­ing to cre­ate iso­la­tion with­in my process. Because I love the inter­net so damn much! So some­times I just got­ta make myself cut that shit out so I can dial in on what I need to hear and speak to that. 

Grace: What have you learned from work­ing on this album?

Solange: That to be hon­est I’m still real­ly unsure if joy always comes in the morn­ing but I do know when it does come you got­ta hold on real tight and be real still. I used to be con­tent with moments of hap­pi­ness, which real­ly can change with every sec­ond, but I’ve been feel­ing a lot of joy late­ly and it’s like my whole uni­verse has opened up.

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