Whenever you see Seattle-based conceptual artist Natasha Marin’s name next to a work of art, it will likely be followed by a list of many other names — contributors, supporters, other artists, co-curators, people you’ve never heard of before but won’t soon forget.
Marin’s “medium is people,” as she says in the short version of her bio, and Black people are at the center of her ongoing, multipart, multiform project, “Black Imagination.”
Black people aren’t just the heart of “Black Imagination,” they’re the ears, legs, arms and eyes. Black folk filmed, directed, sound designed, performed and wrote the project. It goes beyond “for us, by us” to be a project for, by, about, raising up, healing, soothing and celebrating Black people.
“Black Imagination” is a sweeping project that exists in five different iterations so far: as a book published in 2020, three different in-person exhibitions, and an online exhibit called “Sites of Power.” In addition, an audiobook adaptation, read by actor Daveed Diggs and screenwriter Lena Waithe, came out this month.
“Created in community,” as Marin typically attributes her work, “Black Imagination” connects Black people from all over the world with each other — from as far away as New Zealand to right here in Seattle — by quite literally collecting their voices and stories and bringing them into conversation with each other, an act that highlights the boundless breadth and dynamism of Blackness.
Marin’s most recent creation under the “Black Imagination” banner is “Black Imagination: Sites of Power,” an immersive online experience. Marin and director, performer, theater consultant and co-curator Jay O’Leary Woods worked together across an ocean — O’Leary Woods was in Scotland at the time — and collected answers to three prompts from Black people all over the world then wove them together into an online exhibit of videos, portraits and looping audio playlists.
Creating the project in the midst of a pandemic that kept most of the collaborators from being together physically added a unique challenge, but also an opportunity to provide connection at a time when people were isolated.
“There is a sense of community that is inextricable to what ‘Black Imagination’ is as a whole. Last year there were many times when it was palpable how far away we were from each other, how isolated everyone was and still is,” said Marin. “We are social creatures and what we do together is so much more impressive than what any one of us can do alone.”
For some of the project’s participants, the prompts evoked that sense of community: What is your origin story? How do you heal yourself? Describe or imagine a world where you are safe, valued and loved.
But no two answers are the same. If you are looking for a work of art that will teach you about “the Black experience,” this ain’t it.
The voices gathered on “Sites of Power” show a reality people of color are all too familiar with having to explain: “We are not a monolith.”
The ways that Black people heal from and imagine their way out of the racist systems that reverberate painfully across histories and continents are myriad.
For poet Ebo Barton, who contributed to both the “Black Imagination” book and “Sites of Power,” writing is a salve.
“What I realized at a very young age was that no one really wanted to listen to me. I was a younger person, I was a Black kid, I was a brown kid, I was queer — all of these different ways in which I was not to be listened to. What I discovered was that if I made it sound pretty enough, you would want to,” Barton said
In a video interview with Marin on “Sites of Power,” contributor Jordan Green describes how family, “both chosen and biological” — Green’s Black therapist or 102-year-old grandmother — reminds Green to practice self-love.
Another “Sites of Power” video (adapted and directed by O’Leary Woods, composed by Porscha Shaw, edited by Dante Berger, and featuring artist Shermona Mitchell) depicts the particular intimacy and healing practice of Black folk doing each other’s hair.
These answers uncover a vulnerability, range and joy that popular images of Black people regularly fail to capture.
Some of the questions participants answered in “Sites of Power” originated in previous iterations of “Black Imagination” that were exhibited in 2018: “The (g)Listening” at Feast Arts Center, an immersive audio experience; “States of Matter” at CORE gallery, an exhibit co-created with Amber Flame, Rachael Ferguson and Imani Sims, in which participants were guided blindfolded through a labyrinth of sounds and voices; and “Ritual Objects” at Virago Gallery, Marin’s attempt to literally bottle up Black joy by inviting joyous Black people to infuse 144 glass bottles labeled “Black joy” with the spirit of their own joy through a personal ritual and reflection.
While all of the iterations of “Black Imagination” are Marin’s brainchildren, she says she is changed by the work as well, because of the connections she makes and the stories she listens to.
“Listening to Black people will change all people, including Black people,” she said. “When you listen to people as if they’re living treasures, as though every word coming from them is the last dispensation, it really changes how you receive the information they’re giving you.”
It is visible how Marin comes alive in conversation and community with others.
To join Marin and O’Leary Woods in conversation together about “Sites of Power” is to see Black imagination at work in real time. As creatives, they approach topics from differing perspectives but encourage each other’s ideas and build upon them, and sometimes temper or challenge each other to think differently.
In conversation, Marin often launches into celestial metaphors to describe “Black Imagination,” invoking the likes of stars and quantum entanglement to explain the power of Black artistry and experience.
And O’Leary will sometimes retrieve those celestial images and ground them in earthly examples of Black genius.
“Because ‘every (you know the lyric) is a staaar!’” O’Leary sings the hook to the Boris Gardiner song after Marin describes the project in terms of time and space and star dust, and they both laugh.
Marin’s starry descriptions partly come from her own admiration of science fiction writers like Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin, but it’s largely because “Black Imagination” is a project so broad in scope it isn’t easy to contain, and Marin only plans to make it bigger.
On March 9, “Black Imagination” was released as an audiobook on Scribd.
“After connecting with Natasha and hearing her creative vision for ‘Black Imagination,’ I knew that this was a project that I needed to be involved in,” said Waithe, screenwriter and one of the readers of the audiobook, in an email. “Rewriting history is our right, but I believe that it is important to remind future generations of the struggles the Black community has gone through and continues to go through. I am thrilled at the opportunity to honor the voices of those in the book by embodying them and sharing their powerful journey with listeners.”
In the future, “whenever the money flows,” O’Leary Woods plans to turn “Black Imagination” into a staged play and a feature film.
“I’m very excited about being able to just bring as many Black people together on both of these projects,” O’Leary Woods said. “I’m bringing everybody up. Everybody is coming on the journey, because ‘every[body] is a star.’”
A second book for “Black Imagination” is currently in the works, this time with new prompts that center on indigeneity (a call for submissions is currently open until March 31).
“We don’t understand how much psychological damage it has done to us to not know who we are and where we come from,” said Marin. “For diasporic Black folks, this is the work we have to do. This is a crucial step in our healing.”
As the scope of this ongoing project continues to grow and take new forms, Black imagination, it seems to say, is limitless.
“This is not a project I am bored by … I can imagine all sorts of iterations,” Marin said before musing about a “Black Imagination” video game. “The further I go in the Black imagination, the more I see there is to discover.”