January 21, 2021
It seems the fledgling Nuwu art and advocacy complex won’t rent an art studio to just anyone. Don’t expect to roll in, paint your pretty pictures, and slip back out, a solitary creative enigma.
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As the application questions make clear, the fluid interplay between art and activism is Nuwu’s jam. “We’re looking for community-ass people,” says co-owner Fawn Douglas, the well-known artist and indigenous activist (her partner is UNLV history professor A.B. Wilkinson). “People who have been doing work in the community, people who have been doing their work around social justice in some way. People who are active, and want change.” Emphasis on POC creatives and their allies.
Nuwu, which began soft-opening in late December, owns four buildings on South Maryland Parkway, not far from Circle Park. Two are more or less finished, while work on the others proceeds as time, finances, and the plague allow. It’ll take three to five years, Wilkinson guesses. Probably less, Douglas thinks.
In addition to studio rentals — eight total when it’s all built out — Nuwu will provide space for activists, organizers, cultural healers, workshops, panel discussions, and, post-COVID, community events. A sizable corner of one building will serve as a “cultural makerspace,” with looms and other equipment for textiles, weaving, and beadwork.
The occupants they’ve already signed up suggest the chewy cultural thickness Douglas and Wilkinson hope to cultivate: In one light-filled, wood-ceilinged studio you’ll find married artists Xochil Xitlalli and Juan Quetzal, whose work each incorporates indigenous elements and cross-cultural explorations; another space will go to filmmaker Ben-Alex Dupris, whose 2019 short film Sweetheart Dancers explores gay identity within a traditional Native American context. In still other spaces, Douglas hopes to bring in educators and art therapists and more. She imagines everyone sharing ideas in the common areas, collaborating, helping each other extend their networks.
To hear the pair tell it, creating Nuwu has been both a labor of love and a multidisciplinary pain in the ass — from the financial aikido of dealing with sellers, brokers, lenders, and, in the case of one building, a baroque probate transaction, to the extensive refurbishing that was required. The buildings were in bad shape when the pair bought them last spring. “It was like walking in a funhouse,” Douglas says now. You wouldn’t know it from the room she’s sitting in, a pristine cube soon to be occupied by artists Brent Holmes and Ashanti McGee, but the place had been neglected for years and trashed by squatters.
That’s where the literal labor of love came in: patching roofs, clearing debris, refinishing walls and floors, night after weary night. The muscle-aching, time-sucking work inched forward through the long, scorching summer of plague deaths, protests, and intensifying political rhetoric. Not to mention their own packed schedules — day jobs, academic commitments, creative work, advocacy.
“I would have to write a book to explain everything we went through to get going,” Wilkinson says with a sigh. “Every little detail has a story.”
For example, the floor in the standalone studio out back. It’s a smooth expanse of concrete — now. But the building had once been a bathhouse, with a one-person pool inset into the floor. You can probably guess the next detail: No one had bothered to empty it before vacating however many years ago. The water was so dark and foul they couldn’t gauge how deep it was. It was July, so the temps were in the triple digits; anything would be more enjoyable than draining the black lagoon. But the tile guys were coming soon.
“We looked at each other, and it was like, gotta f*cking do it,” Douglas recalls. How? “Did you ever see Fantasia, where Mickey gets the buckets? We kept handing off the bucket and handing off the bucket. And it was like, Ew, it got on me!” And we’re talking a lot of bucket work here: “It was five feet deep,” Douglas says. “It was awful. But at the end it was satisfying. It was like, man, that was really shitty. But now it’s done.”
You can take that as a lightly comic anecdote illustrating the foibles of renovation, but it contains deeper resonances if you’re alert to them: the unseen, unglamorous work of building community; the hard pragmatism required to deal with someone else’s leftover sludge; the obstacles nonwhite artists frequently confront in trying to realize their work. If that last one seems like a stretch, you might want to consult the headlines. It’s never been easy to be an artist of color. But the resurfacing of white-supremacist energies in response to last summer’s protests and in events like January 6 has almost certainly upped the difficulty factor.
“I have definitely felt that to my core,” Douglas says. “It has really rattled me.” She pauses. “America has some work to do.” Wilkinson mentions a flag-bedazzled pickup that cruised slowly past the Nuwu buildings recently — and the fact that it made him nervous prompted him to quickly push back against that anxiety in a way that mirrors Nuwu’s philosophy. “I want to bring people in,” he says. "How do we be inviting to all groups?”
“It’s difficult,” Xochil Zitlalli says of the social climate right now. “There are people who are angry that you want to share certain types of information. I’ve heard comments like, ‘That was 500 years ago, get over it.’ But these things are still important to some people!”
Though Douglas is wary of overusing the R word, Nuwu really is about resilience. “For all the awful, negative things that are happening,” she says, “there has to be a positive push. There has to be a dream of a better future.” But first, they’re gonna need those 300 words about social justice.
Nuwu Art, Cultural Arts + Activism Center
1335 S. Maryland Parkway
Drawing from his extensive personal collection, he recently organized an exhibit at the Sahara West Library, Ventriloquism From Ancient Sages To Modern Stages: Three Thousand Years Of Vocal Conjuration, on view through March 14. Vox chatted with Fifth Street about the exhibit, tricks of the voice-throwing trade, and ventriloquism’s historical association with the occult.
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So, first: Ventriloquism used to be associated with the occult?
The historic records about ventriloquism really go back to thousands of years ago, as mentioned by Aristophanes, by Plutarch, by Plato. It was considered a form of necromantic divining called engastrimy. It’s from the Greek word engastrimythos, meaning “in-the-belly speaker.” Now, the reason for this is the ancient diviners would pretend or claim to possess a spirit inside their stomach, and they would talk to the spirit, which was heard to answer them.
Aristophanes even makes a joke about ventriloquism in one of his plays. He says that as, as the writer of the plays, he puts words into the mouths of actors, much like Eurycles — a famous ventriloquist at the time — whose words seem to come from another source. This is the first ventriloquist joke that’s actually still used today. The joke, as you’ve probably seen, is the dummy saying, “Stop putting words into my mouth!” It's the same gag, which is remarkable.
It took many, many centuries, but it was around about the 1600s, when mankind began to loosen up about age-old superstitions, that it gradually emerged as a street entertainment. You know, maybe a person did magic and couple of other things, and then made a voice come from inside a box. That’s how it really began, as street entertainment. It didn't move on to the stage until around about the mid-1700s.
How did you become interested in ventriloquism?
When I was around 10 years old. I had seen ventriloquists performing when I was very young, where, I can't remember — maybe at a kid’s party — but I was aware of what it was. As a boy, I did a little bit of puppetry and magic. I homed into ventriloquism because in a magic shop one day, I picked up a leaflet. It was a penny — I’ll always remember that. And it was, “How to Be a Ventriloquist,” in one page, and I was reading it on the bus home, and I was sold, and that was it.
What attracted me most is that it was a comedy. I used to be, and still am, a great admirer of Abbott and Costello. And, really, essentially what a ventriloquist does is a comedy team between you and an imaginary character. That's what really attracted me to it.
Have you ever used your ventriloquism powers to prank people?
Yes, most ventriloquist have — pretending that they’ve got a telephone in their hand or something, and people are confused. But there was one particular time I’m fond of recalling. I did a gig in Switzerland. I was there for two years. And I accompanied a friend of mine into town, and we went to a shop where they were demonstrating these new little dolls that talked — when you spoke to them, they would record your voice and answer back. There was a German lady demonstrating these. So I went in and I said to her, “What about the rabbit there, does that talk?” She said, " Nein, nein." And I picked it up, and I spoke to it, and made the voice. She looked at me, and she took the rabbit angrily, went to the back, and she was talking to the manager, and in German — using very bad words — she said, “Why didn't you tell me the rabbit talks!” We slipped out the door very quickly. She was totally confused.
What about more recently — like making vegetables talk at the grocery store?
(Laughs) No, no.
It seems that ventriloquism has always been considered a sidebar or novelty in the entertainment world. What are your thoughts on that?
You're absolutely correct. For many years, ventriloquists were opening acts, they’d open for a singer, the big star — I did it myself, opening for big people like Engelbert Humperdinck, and so forth. We were always opening acts. In recent years, the whole ballgame has changed with the emergence of superstars like Jeff Dunham, Nina Conti in England, Sascha Grammel in Germany. The whole platform has changed now. These people are stars in their own right. So it’s quite a change from the ’60s when it was an opening act up until that time. I like to think that I’ve helped that by documenting the art and showing that it has an imposing pedigree, which many people never realize. They just think it's something somebody took up yesterday.
Is there a level of control involved where ventriloquists can actually direct where their voice goes, or am I just imagining that?
It’s imagined, but that’s very important, because that’s what the ventriloquist takes advantage of. You can’t actually physically take the voice outside the body. That’s impossible. But what you can do is imitate a sound that appears to come from a distance. Now, very often you've heard a sound, and we often make excuses, we say, “Wait a minute, that seemed too near to come from so far.” So we rely upon our eyes to pinpoint the source of what we hear. When we hear a sound, we will automatically look to see where that sound is proceeding from.
The ventriloquist takes advantage of this by directing, or rather misdirecting, the audience to where he or she wishes them to hear the sound. Now, this process is accelerated, of course, by the mouth-moving figure (aka the dummy). The mouth on the figure moves, you hear the sound, and your senses are deceived into bringing those two together. You can’t separate them. So it’s a very interesting illusion.
Does ventriloquism require a lot of specialized training and techniques?
Actually, basic ventriloquism is very easy to do. In fact, at the exhibit, you’ll see that there’s a mirror there, and you can do ventriloquism instantly. It’s not a big secret. And I show in this little exhibit, you can do it. Anybody can do it. Children particularly can pick it up very fast. It’s just a technique. What you've got to do then is develop an act if you want it to become a true comedic dialogue.
As far as technique, I show all the substitutes you can use for pronouncing different letters. When you get more experienced, you’re be able to pronounce certain words really well by using the tongue. You see, what people often use when they speak are exterior articulators, like the lips. When we say “Hello,” well, it’s easy to say without using exterior articulators. If you say “Peter,” it’s different, because you’re bringing your lips together, in order to get those plosive sounds. So the ventriloquist has to learn to use the interior articulators for pronunciation — the tongue, the teeth, and so so forth.
So what distinguishes a good ventriloquist from a great ventriloquist?
In the end, ventriloquism really is about comedy. If you're not funny, you can have all the technique in the world, but it's going to be boring. You know, you may be able to throw your voice, you may be able to make different voices, you may be able to be clever, and say certain words without moving your lips. But when it comes down to it, you've got to make the audience laugh.
And I think that’s where Jeff Dunham and people like that have broken through big time. The comedy is the most essential part of it. What you’re doing with ventriloquism is you're creating characters — an invisible character, perhaps. But you’ve got to make that character real in such a way that the audience believe in its existence.
That’s the way you have to look at it: as an actor. You have to look at the figure as a real person, not because you’re schizophrenic or anything like that. But in order to make it real for the audience, you have to believe it. When you’re on stage with another actor, you don’t think, oh, yeah, that’s Larry. You have to think of him as Hamlet or whoever he’s playing. And so in order to project the illusion that that character is real, you have to believe it.
1. If you missed the United States’ first Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, reading her poem “ The Hill We Climb” during Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ inauguration yesterday, I’m sorry. You can still watch it on YouTube, of course, but there was something magical about seeing this tiny young woman, whose love of the spoken word had helped her overcome a speech impediment, command a stage built to welcome one of the most powerful men in the free world more confidently and graciously than anyone who came before or after her in the ceremony. Commentators made much of Lady Gaga’s turn and gesture toward the Capitol, which insurrectionists had stormed two weeks earlier, as she sang the National Anthem line, “… but our flag was still there.” Gorman, by contrast, didn’t need theatrics to drive her point home. The strength of her writing and clarity of her conviction carried the message, loud and clear.
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2. Before Trump left office, his Justice Department completed a record-setting number of federal executions. The department had resumed the practice last year after a 17-year hiatus. Among those executed was Lisa Montgomery, whose death by lethal injection took place with little fanfare on January 13. Yet it had to be a terrible day for intimate violence victims and their advocates. Montgomery, who was convicted of strangling a pregnant woman to death and then cutting the baby out of the victim’s stomach (the child survived), was herself the subject of unspeakable torture for most of her life. The case — tragic on all accounts — raises lots of questions, not the least of which is whether the effects of severe trauma qualify as a criminal defense. A recent New York Times Op-Ed argued that they do, linking the continual cruelty Montgomery evidently suffered starting in childhood, the resulting psychosis, and her particular crime. On the other hand, this reported piece by the BBC accounts not only for Montgomery’s victimizers, but also her victims, bringing the bounds of mercy back into play.
3. While we’re on the justice system, I have to call out (shameless mothership plug!) Louder Than a Riot, the NPR podcast that, as hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden like to say, is about rhyme and punishment, or “the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration” in the U.S. The series debuted last October with three episodes dedicated to New Orleans rapper Mac Phipps, whose murder trial and conviction lay bare the shockingly corrupt practices of a Louisiana parish bent on putting a certain stereotype of person behind bars. (Spoiler alert: Someone else confessed to the crime!) Subsequent episodes cover other rappers caught up in the justice system, and in each case the producers bring in plenty of context to make their point. At heart, Louder Than a Riot episodes are history lessons told through the lens of a marginalized population’s music.
4. I wanted to dislike Adriene Mishler, the Reigning Queen of Pandemic Yoga — not the article, but the woman. I’ve been hearing about Mishler for years. I’m a yoga teacher — you may have heard — and can tell you that it’s an expensive undertaking. Trainings cost thousands of dollars and require hundreds of hours to complete, and then there are all the usual business expenses — licensure, insurance, equipment. In addition, teaching yoga comes with a high level of responsibility; students trust you with their bodies and spirits. Teaching yoga for free, as Mishler does, undermines the professionalization I believe the practice needs and deserves. But after reading the story, which portrays her as the kind of teacher I try to be, I had to try her classes on YouTube. And you know what? They’re pretty great. She makes some (imho) questionable statements about “detoxing” and wears a lot of Adidas (one of her sponsors), but otherwise avoids the cringy habits of wellness influencers. And I enjoyed her creative sequencing, which she bases on a helpful goal (stretch at your desk, heal a sore back). All the same, I’ll stick with my paid subscription to Yoga International. The ads, data collection, the expectation something so hard to master should always be free. It just can’t be good … karma. Heidi Kyser
Photos and art: Nuwu Art and Valentine Vox by Christopher Smith
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