Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Mourner's Carnival

Over thirty years ago, a few months before my birth, my mother, father, brother and I attended Carnival on the island of Antigua. Carnival is a big event held every summer celebrating Antigua’s emancipation from slavery. It is a time of great bacchanal and enjoyment, masquerade and steel pan music. It celebrates a reconnection to freedom of spirit and imagination, and is homage, not only to liberty, but to our ancestors.

From my Mother’s womb, I sensed the lights and colors, and how they flashed in ways not typical. I sensed dancing presences, my spirit warmed by the heat from fire, felt great fear, then overwhelming peace. I, on the brink of birth, the latest descendant of Africans who were once enslaved, felt the revolutionary energy in this celebration. Later on, as a growing child, my first love outside of my parents and older brother was the gift of my imagination, and because I knew we all had this gift, I was convinced that the true nature of any human being is that we are essentially free. At my first carnival, right there from my Mother’s womb, blissfully non-verbal, I learned this: it is possible to transcend suffering through imagination. It is possible to reclaim unfortunate legacies with color, word, music, image, dance and line. Before I was born, I was inspired! My inspiration further deepened by ruminating, in later years, on the meaning of me – one of the products of the union between my parents, both immigrants to this country, brilliant, beautiful, full of hope, believing in their dreams. Since my Mother’s passing, much of these memories return to me now in the form of impressions and insights, things I had forgotten along the way or had become ashamed of; our society puts highest value on linear thought. The nature of memory is not linear and explanations serve to oversimplify the experience of being within my mother, both witnessing and immersing myself at the same time, in a celebration with ancient roots; a complex, colorful, musical, spirit driven work of art.

Since my mother’s death, carnival images appear to me in my dreams. I draw them obsessively as a way to cope with my grief. I derive comfort from the carnival beings that spring up from my imagination. Their colors are healing and their secrets are many.

Above is an excerpt from a carnival comic I am working on.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Ave Gloria

St. John's, Antigua, October 24, 1933 - Bronx, NY, March 30, 2008
is something my Mother used to say.
I do not know what it really means.
I only know what it means to me.
The first artist I met was my Mother.
I am one of the masterpieces she left behind.
And although I intend to wreak creative havoc
To both fill and understand the void in me that she left
I hope she will continue to rest in peace.
Dear Reader, Welcome to BASSA BASSA ARTS!
I am trying to find my voice again after a long period of grief. Over the past two years I have watched my mother suffer a great deal, then die. Since my Mother’s passing, I have been trying to redefine what it is I have come to the world to say.
My Mother was an immensely private person and raised me to be that way, so I hesitate to even write about this, but as an artist trying to create from a place of integrity, I feel that it is important and healing for me to be open about my grief. My Mother's life and death will forever inform my self-expression. Her story like so many of our stories is the complicated story of the immigrant, black woman, health care worker, mother, wife, daughter, auntie, human being. I am so sad that those of you who read this will never get a chance to meet her because she was so bawdy, enigmatic, controversial and hilarious. I used to say this to her when she was being funny: 'Mommy you really need to take that show on the road' and I guess 7 months after her death - on today, her 75th birthday, when it hits me real hard that she is gone and not coming back- I can say that she did.
Here is the Tribute I wrote for her and read at her funeral. The title comes from a letter I found among her belongings after she passed. It was addressed to her mother, Wilhemina, dated sometime in the late 70's, informing her that she was returning home to Antigua, with my brother, father and I, to see her and jump up at Carnival. My mother opened the letter with, "To My Dear Sweet Mother, Wilhemina." Here is how I open mine:
To My Dear Sweet Mother, Igena
To My Dear Sweet Mother, Igena
As you continue the dream of your life in the richness of death
I hear you telling jokes throughout the heavens,
safe like a babe in the arms of Jesus,
comforted by departed loved ones and angels
Who watch you illuminate the paradise you have longed for
with the energy from your smile.

I hear you singing Calypso and beating the steel pan with your brother Eugene,
I see you running and jumping into the forever of your father, Arthur’s arms
Who tells you that he, really, had never ever let you go.
I smell you cooking saltfish with your Mother, Wilhemina and Sister, Dorothy
And when I close my eyes I could just see you
embracing, forever, your Uncle, Job
For like him, you have kept your faith and are therefore more than well again,
You are what you were the entire length of your life
“Gene the Queen,” my elegant, sassy, bawdy, sensitive, passionate mother
A woman with more levels than the Taj Majal,
The open sea, with all of its purple depths.

To my Dear Sweet Mother, Igena,
You are now the ancestor we dream of
When we want to remember how to put the real ‘glam’ back into ‘glamour,’
Then add charm and sophistication to appear larger than life.
But you were always more than just an image to me.
You told me, as a child, that no matter what I wanted to do with my life you would
Always love me, and you did.
And with the ardent spirit of the immigrant, you embraced the true meaning of ‘America’ when you told me that I had the power to be anything I wanted to be in the world,
And with these words, said with such heart-rending love,
you unfettered a little black girl’s imagination.

To My Dear Sweet Mother, Igena
You are not gone from me, Mommy,
You are in everything I have, say, will or won’t do
You have simply nestled like a butterfly with its purple, blue and red celestial body
throughout every one of my cells,
to rest now, rest, rest, rest, finally in peace
Recline, forever on the warm, full mattress of your daughter’s heart
Knowing that it is more than an honor to me, to have sprung
from the calm, turbulent, magnetic, majestic, insides of you.
Love, Tiffany
Ashe, Ashe

Life and death should always include some kind of celebration, even though both my Mother did not live long enough to see the first black President.

Happy Birthday, Mommy!