Creative Fusion – M. Carmen Lane / Cleveland

A Tough Interrogation

M. Carmen Lane is a two-spirit African-American and Haudenosaunee (Mohawk/Tuscarora) artist, cultural worker, poet, popular educator and consultant living in Kahyonhá:ke (Cleveland, Ohio). Carmen is a part of the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion Data Art cohort. We talked about their influences, what drives them, and the artist’s work in A Color Removed, an exhibition curated by Michael Rakowitz as part of FRONT International at SPACES Gallery.

JIMI: What was the first work of art you were exposed to that affected you, that told you that art could speak in powerful ways?

CARMEN: I come from an intergenerational family of artists so I grew up with things that my family made all around me—it was normative. In terms of whose work “talked to me,” I would say the life and practice of Elizabeth Catlett continues to blow me away.

With Ken’nahsa:ke/Khson:ne: On My Tongue, On My Back (Family Tree), I felt pulled into the room and confronted by something I could not quite reconcile…

Everyone had a different experience in this work. (I’m speaking observational data and feedback that I’ve received from viewers of the installation.) The sculpture attempts to center my great-grandmother, to not have her story hidden or skewed, and to contextualize what happened to her body in this city to what’s happening to other black and brown bodies in this environment.

What is the music playing? Does it have spiritual significance?

The music is an original composition for the installation by the Tuscarora artist Jennifer Elizabeth Kreisberg. We’re both Tuscarora. The name of the song is “Our Relatives.” If I had to describe its significance, there is a more cultural than spiritual significance for the song and songs are medicine.

Can you talk about a few of the objects, like the sand (sea salt?), the yellow log, the note behind the portrait and the popcorn—which was a little stale, but tasty nonetheless. I am told.

What looks like sand is actually cornmeal. Cornmeal as both sacred and as a symbol of the ground where these stories are unfolding. The yellow tree branch represents a family tree that is broken—that things have happened to people. The note was written by my grandmother after the death of her mother. She wrote her thoughts and feelings about what it meant to hear her mother’s name on the news years after her death. My grandmother was brushing her teeth in that moment. The popcorn is an offering to Ellegua or Eshu Laroye—the talkative one.

With Chopa/Ellegua Till: The Nigger Who Did The Talking, I wonder if you are mourning our collective apathy or the death of our collective empathy?

There is grief present in the work; however, the communication, for me, is between Emmett [Till] as spirit being and the viewer.

That’s a hefty bit to chew on. Can you thumbnail that, for those not familiar with how, why or where the intersectionality may lay?

Well, the show itself, A Color Removed, frames the impact of the removal of the color orange from a toy gun (a project conceived by the artist Michael Rakowitz). However, the first removals within this system begin with the relocation of Indigenous Peoples from their homelands and reclassifying those bodies as red and black. The impact of stealing West African Indigenous populations into enslavement, labeling them by the color of their skin—these removals over time lead to the formation of Black communities in urban centers as a result of escaping racial violence in the South. Emmett Till’s murder was the impact of returning to his homelands—he was removed. Tamir Rice was murdered in an area in Cleveland historically home to working class European descendants—he was removed. So, there’s a pattern of being removed when you do not know your place.

I felt accused here—I did. About everything I’ve done, yes, but more of what I have not done to save the lives of young black men. It was a tough interrogation.

It is tough. We, all of us the living, participate in the conditions of the world (whether we made them or not). We are active participants.