Finding Place, Holding Court

Life after death with Courtney Desiree Morris

A woman sits, regal and poised like a goddess or a noble, Deep South “church lady” astride a truck-bed-length marble gravestone in the Morningstar Cemetery in Mossville, Louisiana. Captured in one of several photographs by Berkeley-based artist Courtney Desiree Morris in a series titled “Solastalgia,” the compelling image projects strength despite grief and is part of a pictorial mourning diary for the town and its people. After the petroleum industry entered the area already subject to floods and other natural disasters, environmental degradation and economic depredation overwhelmed Mossville’s Black community and led to loss of homes, health, jobs, culture and sense of place.

Morris’ She Who Sits With the Dead #2 and other photos are included in “AFTER LIFE (we survive),” a multimedia presentation of works by 10 Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer and trans artists at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Curated by scholar Thea Quiray Tagle, the exhibit originally planned for YBCA’s 2nd-floor galleries was reconfigured and “turned inside out.” Viewable via safe social distancing through windows and on a billboard in YBCA’s outdoor garden and building spaces, the artwork is also presented online to increase public access due to the pandemic restrictions on travel and large indoor gatherings.

“With the pandemic, art institutions are having to think creatively about how to show work without endangering anyone,” Morris says in a phone interview. “They are at the same time being forced to think about their practices and to open up their spaces to people who might not think they deserve a place in those spaces.”

A photo the curator snapped and sent to Morris of a group of Filipino men playing chess in the courtyard is backdropped by one of her roughly 3.5-by-4-foot oversized photographs. “I like that image because museums, academia and places of knowledge production have traditionally been rarified spaces,” Norris says. “When I started making my work that is largely ancestral and about my family’s history, I thought, how do people find their place within art? But when I showed it to my family, they were deeply moved, could see themselves in it and had lots to say about it.” She has found that even people who assume they aren’t interested in art are moved by it, especially when it is presented in “user-friendly” venues.

Morris, a social anthropologist, is an assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley. She teaches courses on critical race theory, feminist theory, Black social movements in the Americas, women’s social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, and environmental politics in the African Diaspora. Her work as a visual and conceptual artist—and her upcoming book with a late 2021 release date from Rutgers University Press—address migration, ancestry, environmental racism, Black-women activism, social, sacred and individual memory, philosophies and systems that declare Black bodies as disposable, and more.

Mossville, she says, is an example of environmental racism and a harbinger of things to come. “It could be what the world looks like,” she suggests. Her thoughts and research to investigate her family’s ancestral home and origins have led to broader questions: What are our values? How long will we sacrifice communities in the name of progress? Do we think people have a right to say what goes on in their backyards?

Does Morris sense a shift in public awareness centered on the fact that people of color disproportionately bear the impact of environmental pollution? “No, which sounds terrible,” she says, “but changes in recent years due to environmental activists who have worked to mainstream how environmental pollution causes people of color to bear the burdens gives me cause for hope. The Flint [Michigan] water tragedy and Hurricane Katrina forced people to pay attention. But when it comes to climate change, a small-but-powerful number of critics who have a lot of funding still say environmental racism is preposterous. They think of climate change as something in the future, a shadowy future.”

Because the threat to the environment is not as immediate as the Black Lives Matter movement or the pandemic, Morris says those crises, combined with the chatter of climate-change naysayers, make it difficult for environmental activists, scholars and scientists to be heard.

Demonstrating through art how environmental events and social outcomes in the world are connected catches people’s attention in abstract, less overtly political ways and is, therefore, a powerful tool. During the pandemic that she calls “surreal,” the paradox redefining the meaning of home is experienced universally, but is also complex. “We’re spending a lot of time—more than we care to—at home,” she says. “I convey in my work the idea of home as comfort, peace, belonging; but homes are also violent, troubled or imperiled—like Mossville.”

Additionally, not everyone has the same rights to claim the United States as home. “Conservatives have an idea of what home means as the exclusion of other people,” she says. “Others say that America is home, but we have a lot of work to do. We have to pull skeletons out of the closet and talk about how to some people this country is a violent, unsafe place.”

Asked if we might hold those conversations and then shuffle or stuff all the talk back into the closet until we suffer the consequences when at some future time it all comes tumbling back out—as it has in 2020—she says that is a strong possibility.

Seeking to offer something far more substantial than diversion or temporary hope with the images included in “AFTER LIFE,” there are works such as Colored Swimming Pool. Here, the young churchgoer appears dressed in a blood-red dress, white hat, gloves and high-heeled shoes. She stands on the edge of a community swimming pool. Hand on one hip, she glances back at the viewer; the smooth, glossy surface of the water echoes her steady, icy gaze. “Mossville is a community populated by people who are deeply religious,” Morris says. “This figure of the church lady shows up in many configurations in my work. The Mossville pool is the place where all of the people have their big events—weddings, reunions. Of course, it was a segregated facility when it was built. Even though it was built within that system, it’s still highly regarded.”

Two metaphoric photographs taken in the same location—The Pink House and Pray for Me—depict abandonment, decay, beauty and the sanctity of sacred spaces. In Pink House, the rarified Victorian architecture of one of Mossville’s few remaining homes, abandoned and in obvious disrepair, maintains its beauty and the aura of a once much-loved homestead. Pray for Me features the churchgoer, viewed from the back, on her knees, face hidden and red dress flowing like a blood-letting across the pink house’s weathered porch boards.

Morris admits she had a strange relationship with Black Southern Christianity while growing up in the South and came to understand its value by examining her ancestry and creating art. “I’ve come to appreciate the roles those spiritual practices played in my family’s survival,” she says. “I engaged in those spiritual traditions by thinking about this church-y, religious woman who is roughly based on my grandmother. That’s what drove the images. How do people try to make their space feel sacred, even if there are things there that are trying to kill them?”

For Morris, discovering answers and arriving at realizations about lost homes, places and memories invites another question: How do you document something that doesn’t exist anymore? Driveway, a landscape image of an empty yard with a driveway and a set of stairs leading to an empty space where a house surely stood, is an eerie affirmation of loss and underscores the importance of preservation, permanence, appreciation for history, culture and community. “When I drove to Mossville, all I saw were driveways or steps to nowhere. I took a walk and came upon this scene. It was disturbing to me to see how quickly I couldn’t remember what had been there before. That process of erasure and forgetting drives the point that the day will come that the community will be entirely gone. There were people here, a dynamic community. It didn’t disappear on its own, it was made to disappear.”

Which spirals forward in Morris’ mind to the current moment in 2020 she describes as revolutionary. “People are asking for real change,” she says. “Young people on the street protesting, people coming together to create aid organizations and insist they have a right to health care—they’re not waiting for the government, they’re doing it on their own. They’re trying to speak to the challenges of the moment and take care of one another when the state fails to do so. They are a mass movement and at the same time, they keep making demands of the government. From my ancestors, I know we can survive this, we can survive anything.”

Images on view at YBCA.org.

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