2017/18 Jerome Fellow Interview: Lela Pierce | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2017/18 Jerome Fellow Interview: Lela Pierce

By Zoe Cinel on April 26, 2018
Invasive species: for Philando (detail), 2016, tulle fabric, tempera paint, yarn, burlap, buckthorn roots, wire, Soap Factory, Minneapolis ; Lela Pierce
Lela Pierce

In this interview, Lela Pierce describes the complexities of her family history and identities, and how her multidisciplinary practice can provide a space for healing, balance, and contemplation.  

You are a performer in addition to being a maker of objects and installations. How are these two practices in dialogue with one another?

In an ideal world, these three practices of dance, painting, and installation would be balanced for me. Dance is generally quite physical and active, my painting practice is physically stationary, and my installation work is somewhere in-between.

I have been a practitioner of yoga meditation since childhood, and because of that, I am constantly seeking balance and union between active and passive energies in my life on a mental and physical level. I seek unity between my mind, body, and spirit through action and inaction, and I think that striving is reflected in the work/actions that I choose to do.

Sometimes it feels like all of these practices are more or less in harmony but more often than not it feels like they are at odds or competing for my attention. It is easy to get thrown out of balance. Each practice requires a lot of dedication and commitment in order to produce what I perceive as sincerity and honor to the concepts I work with. Funding and elements of survival add further complication to that balance as well. Up until now, these artistic practices have felt pretty compartmentalized for me, and yet thematically very related. They are absolutely informing one another.

Each form has limits and inefficiencies of what can be easily expressed. I find that my mind’s activity in each process has different qualities/modalities of processing information based on the vigor of my body. When I reach the limit of expressing a concept in one area sometimes I can take it further (or in an entirely different direction) in another art form. More and more I am interested in cultivating and imagining unity and balance between them all.

You use the term “ancestral healing” to describe your work. How do you define “ancestral healing” and how are you engaging with this idea through your art? 

There is increasing evidence pointing to the ways in which trauma disrupts an individual’s DNA expression, and these changes can be passed on to future generations. Symptoms of trauma will often skip a generation and be experienced/expressed by the grandchildren of those who experienced that trauma directly. I think about this a lot in my work.

My mother is third generation Eastern European American, her grandparents were Croatian and Ruthenian/Lemko—a tribal group from the Carpathian Mountains near Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Her people were forced to leave their home during World War II to avoid ethnic cleansing by Nazis. My father was Black American, descended from African slaves, and partly identified as Creole and Black Creek/Muscogee native.

When I speak of ancestral healing of the trauma held in DNA, I am for the most part addressing the stories of these two sides of my family and the ways that their identities have been adopted and at odds with one another in the context of American history. On both sides of my family there is a history of being brutally colonized. However, one side, for the most part, has been able to escape, assimilate, and benefit from race privilege while the other side continues to be affected by the continual violent systemic effects of that colonization as a community. Both of these histories exist in my body and because of that I feel a deep desire to find societal healing.

When I talk about ancestral healing in relation to my artistic work I am really talking about finding transformation as a society through imagery. I see a lot of my work as an action of continually and persistently trying to imagine what healing from various societal traumas might look like and how all of the horrible images of violence can and often do transform towards healing and resiliency in the face of hopelessness. 

Where does the element of repetition come from in your work? What does it mean?

Repetition is meditative, it creates a certain contemplative mental space for me to process information through the intellect. Repetition is representative of rhythms that are present in life such as death and life cycles, day and night, the passage of time, labor, body rhythms, sleep rhythms, heart beats, ritual, habit patterns, comfort/discomfort, and interconnectedness through synchronizations—to name a few. 

I am very influenced by folk art traditions that have historically been practiced by women and especially women of color. My painting aesthetic is influenced by West African and Eastern European textiles, decorative eggs, and painted home embellishments. I have also seriously studied and integrated elements of Madhubani Painting techniques from the Bihar region of India under the guidance of my teacher Manisha Jha in New Delhi India. I think repetition is often a part of folk art, and my own work due to the deep connection that women tend to have with it—from moon cycles to much of the traditional work women have historically done in the home.

Conceptually, I am also interested in the ways repetition is present in human history, and the ways that life cycle rhythms influence ancestral patterning as well. 

What is your relationship with the Dakota land as a multiracial black artist born and raised in the St. Croix River Valley of Minnesota?

This is a very complicated question.

Firstly, I just want to acknowledge the Dakota people who have lived on this land for a very, very long time and continue to do so. I want to offer my immense gratitude to the Dakota community—knowing that this gratitude is based on a gift/quality of life that they were/are violently forced to hand over without any sort of consent or compensation. Furthermore, I want to acknowledge the Anishinaabe people who migrated to this land in Minnesota from the East Coast and have also called this place home longer than many of us as well. 

As a society, we really need to come to terms with what has happened to Native people on this land, and the ways in which many of us continue to benefit from that history. Really we should remind ourselves of this every day and think about what reparations could look like however great or small. As a multiracial black person, I acknowledge the ways that I benefit from certain things at the expense of Native people through my participation in this society, but at the same time there are various parts of my ancestral black history which have also very much fallen under the same category of being “at the expense of…for the benefit of white colonizers.” The ancestral healing that I speak of and strive toward in my work cannot happen on this land without acknowledging and including the story of Native people in solidarity with my own ancestral stories.

Growing up in the St. Croix River Valley of Minnesota, my family members were basically the only people of color amidst a few Native people, a handful of transracial adopted children, and a sea of mostly Scandinavian descendants. Socially this was very challenging for me and yet, I am so thankful for the relationship that I was able to cultivate with the land around me. Nature holds endless secrets and healing properties for us as humans. When we take the time to be with it and honor it then those secrets can be revealed to us through metaphor and literal medicine. The Dakota people have cultivated a relationship with the land we call Minnesota for a very, very long time, I believe that as a community they hold a deep knowledge of healing and resiliency in this specific place and we should make A LOT more space for that healing and listen.

How has winning the Jerome fellowship affected and/or changed your work?

It has helped to provide some financial stability this year which has made more time and space for me to go deeper into the things that I want to be doing.

If you could pick anyone in the world, living or dead, with whom would you like to have a conversation about your work, who would it be and why?

I would choose any or all of my third great grandmothers and third great-granddaughters. First, because I think it would be incredible to have them all in the same room! And second, because I want to know if my work transcends time and has any impression at all on their lived experiences.