Interview with Ayana Jackson >Photographer >New York
Tara Herbst

Tara: Concerning identity politics do you refer to yourself as a woman, or as a black American? Do you think it is important for political struggle? And what about moral criteria often involved in this?

Ayana: I don't believe that it is in anyone's power or ability to judge or impose any kind of morality or value system or perspective on anyone else. So, I think that it's essential to work with people as they are, work within the premises they set up for themselves, and I ask for the same thing. Interestingly enough in a few projects, in relating to my project with hip hop, there is this whole situation of being related … even though I am the one in the position of doing the questioning… I am in some way being related to from the standpoint that I am Black, I am a woman, I am this I am that…

Tara: You mean concerning your project here in Berlin.

Ayana: Yeah, I was having this conversation actually recently, that just because I happen to be Black American, in some way or another people are more interested in talking to me for that reason alone. Anyway, it was said that people want to talk to you because you are Black, they don’t care if you know anything about hip hop. They don’t care what you think. You are Black; you are American, so therefore you must be knowledgable. I did not realize that, I was not really conscious of that, because I have been living with my blackness and my femaleness all my life, I know that it happens; I don’t appreciate it, however I also think that in certain situations there is no way around it. That’s actually kind of a different topic.

Tara: No, that's interesting.

Ayana: So, I have had to unconsciously manoeuvre around that, completely try to present myself according to whatever it is that I am trying to do and not present myself according to the identity that I represent, or how my identity manifests in their mind. And when I deal with people I do my best not to impose that same thing on these people, on a certain level, though you can't avoid having certain ideas when you come before a certain person. It’s a very tricky situation.

Tara: And did you sometimes use your identities to fight for something?

Ayana: As a tool? I don’t like that… my duality is present at this moment, I think it is always present in this conversation, because somehow, how you ideally would like to see things happen and how reality forms things, makes things a little bit strange from one moment to the next. I don’t like to speak for Black people for example, I don’t like to represent all of Black America, I don’t believe that I am qualified, however, if I am in a situation where things are being said about my heritage, for example that are completely inaccurate, I will respond as a Black person. But I try my best to respond as an individual within that community. As an exception, maybe, as an example of the many exceptions but to say all of us are like this or all of us are like that... I would not do that. And as a woman… same thing. I don't know… (laughs). I don’t think that anyone could ever stand for what it means to be a woman, or what is within the realm of womanhood, we can speak in terms of what we have been taught, how we have been socialized but there is so much that is part of being an individual, and the idea of gender to me is problematic."Okay, yes, I have a vagina, I have breasts, I can reproduce, okay fine that's a fact I can’t get around it", but everything else, how I should be, how I relate to other people, things like that, I don’t believe have anything to do with gender.


Tara: Let's talk about feminism.

Ayana: Oh boy!

Tara: Do you think it is necessary for feminism to make the difference between man and woman?

Ayana: No. No.

Tara: Do you think a man can be feminist?

Ayana: Of course. Why not? I…uh, I am going to get myself in trouble, but I don’t classify myself as a feminist. I don’t.

Tara: Why not?

Ayana: I don’t because I don't think it is necessary. I think that…

Tara: Concerning what is it not necessary?

Ayana: Concerning  movement and progress. I think that the feminist movement was definitely necessary at a certain period of time and I think that somehow it was necessary for women to get together and when people get together in a group, they give themselves a name. But the problem with giving it a name and setting parameters around what it means to be a feminist, in my opinion puts us into a danger zone because it restricts us to a set of codes, like a language. And once you put yourselves in a group or you put yourselves in a box, then it's no longer about moving from one place to another as much as it is about being in that box and setting yourself apart. And maybe that box represents some progress from a previous time and maybe that box represents a resistance to the oppression around you, but somehow- and I think that happens with a lot of movements- you get stuck in another kind of oppression. I think that one should be interested and focused on individual freedom; freedom as a woman, freedom in general, that’s inherent and it's essential to break away from oppressive situations and scenarios. It is important, but to put it under a banner and to associate it with certain codes and ethics and ideas is just another way of oppressing yourself. And so you can have feminist ideas and you can move along towards the liberation of women and freedom and things like that but you can also be a man and do that. You can belong to a continuum. But to be locked into a box is totally unnecessary and also unhealthy.

Tara: And you said once when you came to Berlin you where shocked about how the political correct criteria were in the background of every discussion you might have here.  Was it different in New York?

Ayana: The statement was made when I first came here and I was really feeling it. It was like… I almost felt like I was suffocating. I remember I was watching a movie and I had an opinion on it and it was like ‘the idea is to discuss xyz; not what you just said.’ And its like…(laughs) why can't I speak?

Tara: That was in a public showing.

Ayana: Yes. It was in a public showing.

Tara: In a self-organized space?

Ayana: Yeah, in a self-organized space. I mean it was great and it was fine and I think there is a place for all this political correctness and all this theory and all this, but I was feeling a little suffocated and feeling very nervous and insecure and I did not feel very free. But as time went on, the more I got to know people, the more I felt the freedom, or the more I felt I wasn't being pigeon-holed into this political correctness. And  I have known my friends for a long time, maybe we just speak to each other openly, and there is no judging associated with it... But generally speaking I think that here in some of the circles I have been around there is that political correctness and I don’t think it is necessarily good.

Tara: And you also have this in private discussions.

Ayana: Yeah, also. But political correctness is also in with the whole feminist discussion, I just don’t like to not feel free. I like to be educated, I do like to be informed, and I like to be in a mode of movement and progress and things like that but at a certain time you begin to feel like you are not going anywhere, you are just travelling in one circle of theoreticians, or you are just travelling in one mode… and suddenly the world is very small and what you are free to discuss, and how you discuss it is directed by a third party. And it is easy, I feel, to misunderstand people when you don’t feel free to express.

Tara: Yes, I know what you are talking about. I feel the same. It is s uffocating.

Ayana: It's not good.

Tara: No, it's not productive.

Ayana: It's hard, in general, you want to push people along, you want to push yourself and other things so you have a manifesto, and it works again as like an engine: you turn the key, you are driving but eventually you leave the state and you are dealing with this whole other world and there is more to consider. That was the thing actually, I am reading the CONTRA SEX MANIFESTO from Beatriz Preciado , and I am not so far along in it and I like it actually even though it is totally in that whole pc feminism thing. But I liked it because she actually did sit down and try to list out everything, every potential possibility, …  from a mental perspective she put it all down, and I liked that, but ten years from now there will be like a million more options--as long as we can continue to be inclusive. And that’s the other problem with the pc feminism thing, a lot of times I feel that it is not inclusive. I feel like it is VERY exclusive, and I know that at a certain point you have to protect yourself and protect what you are trying to do and there is a certain level of that that has to be in everything but eventually it gets to the point where you are just excluding everyone except for the people who are inside. And then if it is only the people inside, paying attention and going through this and having these discussions, then how are you affecting the rest of the world and therefore how are you affecting the rest of the society? And in that sense how are you creating progress?

Tara: And this place you opened up here in Berlin, 'space out', what is this?

Ayana: L´espace, 'l´espace out' also known as 'neither/nor' is a community center. It is a platform; it is a place where people can present their ideas and their work without having to conform to any specific rules or regulations. This is an inclusive space that helps to create more space. The idea is that you come in here and you meet people and you present your work and you get new ideas about your work and through your interaction with other people that come here you are able to create another space of your own. The whole idea is to create more space, to expand and to make every opportunity available and to make every option a possibility. We are hanging art work, we are doing installations, we show films, we hang out, we drink Michiladas and Bloody Marys, we make food…

Tara: And how would you define the political? Would you consider doing the <Space out> to be a political act?

Ayana: Definitely.

Tara: And your work, your photo work, too?

Ayana: Yeah, I would definitely consider it political.. It's about community-- whenever you bring people together it has a political manifestation.

Tara: And which specific spaces of your everyday life are important for you now. Like for me it was the <space out> which was a very important space at that time, the only space I loved to go to at that point.

Ayana: Homes. People's homes. I was surprised when I got here that dinner parties where not very common. At home it's common; why go to a restaurant, why go to a bar, why go out, where you have a lot of distractions around you. I think it is nurturing. To cook for someone is to nurture them and to spend time in their home is to honour their environment and to honour them. I think for a long time it has been that way, I always loved to have people in my home, it's a beautiful space to be. I would say that's my preference. Second to that in public spaces I have enjoyed hanging out in the gay scene not so much gay bars or clubs, but bars where everyone is welcomed and that is the unique thing about Berlin, or at least Kreuzberg. There are bars maybe you would not even call them a “gay bar”, maybe its just that that's the community around and everyone is welcome and you are just there. Nobody is looking at you strange if you are hugging your girlfriend or boyfriend, or if I am there and hugging my boyfriend, it's not a problem, I don’t feel that my lifestyle is being imposed on. So in Berlin in public spaces those would be the spaces I enjoy. And l´espace out was like that. It was open and it was free. Even our middle aged Kurdish and Turkish neighbours hung out with the hipsters and Queens. … On the contrary I have been to places in Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and just felt, like, ugh… macho…

And the Roses, the Rote Rose; I love that place! Oh my god! I love it! I mean of course it began with your description of it when we met in New York and then to actually go there I would have never imagined for it to be so great. You have soooo many characters in there. It's nice. I would almost say that Kreuzberg is a vortex, there are certain places in the world or certain cities that have a welcoming, a supportive open energy, and I think that Kreuzberg specifically has that. And I think it has a lot to do with the different kinds of people that are living here and different lifestyles. It's a good balance between the art scene, and the Turkish scene and the lesbians, on this block in this corner you have everyone living together, a lot of strong spirits, a lot of old spirits, somehow it is a beautiful place. But my favourite space was l´espace, too.

Tara: And in what way did you feel empowered by l´espace?

Ayana: I felt empowered by… I may have mentioned it before, I like the idea of giving, of creating spaces for people and that gives me strength, to know that I have done something for someone. Which is kind of self-centred, but, it's a warpped self-centred, it was empowering to have something to offer to people. It was like my house, you know, welcome! Empowered… I am trying to think what that really means.

Tara: In the sense of possibilities for action…

Ayana: It is an action to do something like that; it's not like you are sitting around and talking about something. That is another thing I can not stand. When we talk about pc circles, feminist circles, whatever, those are the two we were talking about right now, but there is a Black power struggle, there are all these different movements, but there is no frequent action in the present tense. You sit around and talk about these things and then you write down your discussion points, your points of contention, this and the other, and then one of the possible ways to bring that out and then you start fighting about it internally and then nothing happens. Or "No, we can't do this kind of event, because then we could offend so and so, and then…" and its just day after day meeting after meeting after meeting and the only benefit you get from it is say that you were there. So for me l´espace was a different kind of action, it was like: okay we are going to give space to people, we are going to meet people, to help people. And hopefully from there comes new possibilities.

Tara: And would you describe it as a sort of community, what happened at the space?

Ayana: Yes.

Tara: And what would this community be based on?

Ayana: It's obviously a community. The way that we did it, we knew a few people and we had a certain idea what our programming was going to be, but for example Krylon came one day, no one had ever met Krylon. I mean as far as the three of us were concerned, he came and he said “you should have a vernissaaage with someone like me!” and he had his vernissage. He did a show. It was that kind of thing where you could come, you have an idea, we have the space, and we'll help you how we can. That´s how community is. In a community you come together, you talk about what you want to see happen, and then you make it happen and somehow what ever you make happen is mutually beneficial.

Tara: And what was the community based on?

Ayana: For me it was based on a continual flow of energy. Truthfully! It was so out of control (laughs). It WAS. It was completely out of control! In other words out of our control. It was not about "I want this and the next thing to happen," it was like "Hey, you want to make something happen, you got it; what day you want?" It worked in some kind of strange spiritual force. People come together… I have the theory-- it's not my theory, I am sure it's like the whole world’s theory-- but the people that you travel with in this life, you travel with in all your lives. And basically the process of life is coming to know those people again, finding those people. And l`espace was like that, meeting you was like that. Life is like that but in l`espace it definitely manifested because everything that happened there just had a place and a purpose and there were new relationships that were formed, beautiful amazing loving relationships were formed amongst many people, so it is based on that spiritual factor that brings people together. Finding each other, it was a way to find people.

Tara: And your community I met in New York, what is that community based on? And in what way do you think communities can be a promise or a threat?

Ayana: My community in New York and even my community here are based on love and support, those two basic things and I feel a part of that. And that's what I believe is the promise, Love and support, to not be judgemental. It's a threat in the sense like we were talking about communities in the form of movements or political communities, with specifically defined agendas-- I never felt like I was a part of things like that. I have come across communities in Berlin and other parts of the world where you do the smallest thing that is not a part of what they think everything is supposed to be and you are ousted, or you are thrown out, or disassociated or ostracized. I remember when I was doing this "rights of passage", and it was amazing because we did have so many people-- there where people from university and folks from the community in Atlanta and it was great and our baba …. okay, just that you know what I am talking about "Nzinga" is a woman's sisterhood and Ndugu is the brotherhood. and we have families  based on spiritual principles (Wisdom, Humility, Forgiveness, Spirituality, and Nurturing). Also trying to reconnect to some of the traditions from West Africa. So it was this very afro-centric situation happening and everyone there is very afro-centric, right? So what happens when a white person wants to be a part of it? Now, our baba, our leader, says "come one come all." Baba is Christian but everyone there, we had Moslems we had, Santeria, Yoruba, we had everything, so his perspective was like let them all come. But when the white person comes, then the small little groups of people who were like "this is Africa, this is my little Africa, this person does not belong here." Or "that's your friend that you brought-- why did you bring this person in?" And that kind of thing is where I believe that community can be a threat, the moment you step outside of some kind of representative idea, then suddenly it's like “Oh no, they  have to go," without even experiencing this person or what new elements they could bring. It's a threat when it becomes dogmatic.

Tara: And in what sense do you feel not belonging to communities?

Ayana: My sense of not belonging….I don’t know, I think I mentioned before I was always on the periphery, so I only really feel like I belong to several small groups of people, even in L´espace-- on an organizational level we were part of that community of everyone that ever came, but as we said, you can not talk to people for more than a few seconds doing this, so it is impossible to really be engaged in their lives, so I feel like big communities, like scenes, like in New York the hipster scene I am not part of the hipster scene, the entertainment-music scene. Yeah, I photograph but I can not say I am part of the scene, I don’t go to every party, I am not always in the VIP in the backroom, and I don’t always feel welcome there either. And in Berlin its similar, the only communities that I can say I really am part of are communities of…(laughs)

Tara: Love (laughs)?

Ayana: of… but… if I have been to your house, we are in a community, if you have been to my house, if you hung out in our kitchen, then we are. That's something that I feel I am a part of and you are a part of, because we are mutually giving, but the larger thing… I don’t know, it's hard to say, because whenever I am in a group of a lot of people I still somehow feel like an outsider, even at the Sieverding class. I love to go there, in some weird way I am part of that class but in some weird way I don’t feel wholly comfortable, or even when I am in b_books, I love many of the people that are part of b_books and I think everyone is amazing, but even to sit at b_books I still somehow feel like I am not really a part of this, I am present but I am not part of it.

Tara: And for example the group of friends with whom we were at the Kotti for New Year's Eve last year, did you feel part of that?

Ayana: Definitely. Definitely. And that was two weeks after we got here. But that goes back to what I was saying before about journeying, journeying through life in search of your old companions, I think that somehow that works. You know when you meet a person if you are meant to journey together. You just know. Immediately. Sometimes you are only supposed to journey for a short period of time, sometimes you journey forever, but you know immediately, but you don’t always feel that with everyone. And talking about large groups of people and movements, it is very difficult to ever feel part of that unless you need something that it can give you, that's a reason to be a part of a community, you need something entirely and so being in that presence, being in those surroundings feeds you.

Tara: So is your choice to live in Berlin at the moment dependant on your social context here?

Ayana: Yeah.

Tara: Because there were several choices for you, there was Africa, Mexico…

Ayana: Definitely. Social context, yeah. You just feel comfortable. I don’t know how to say this, it was very strange to come here and it was almost like everything was just given. We got here and a thousand doors opened up, professionally as well as emotionally, and even intellectually, it was like the stage was set suddenly and there was a general energy that was in the air and in the people. That made it just feel like home immediately, and of course that carries over into the social context; our social context; the people were the ones that made that happen. It was their welcoming. You are welcoming, specifically… We are here because of you, Tara (laughs). I don’t know that I have been anywhere else… I enjoyed a lot of places but I have never been anywhere that seemed so magical, or where people seemed so magical.