By Chaka Mkali //
Chaka Mkali, also known as I Self Devine, is a musician, MC, community organizer, racial-justice trainer, graffiti artist, muralist, and director of organizing and community building at Hope Community in Minneapolis. He is also the co-curator of “Rituals of Resilience,” an audio-visual experience at Mia featuring new music by Mkali and a host of collaborators in dialog with works by Black visual artists from the United States, Africa, and the greater African Diaspora. The accompanying album drops on opening day, March 18, and you can also hear the music during a Virtual Listening Session on March 25. Here, he explains how he became involved.
I came into this process not fully understanding what was expected of me or what I could contribute to this exhibit as a hybrid practitioner at the intersection of art, music, politics, culture, power, place, and space building. Growing up in Los Angeles during the gang-riddled, crack-infested, crime-heavy Carter and Reagan eras, I was raised by parents who were revolutionaries, organizers, artist, and activists involved in the Black Power struggle. My orientation of art and culture has always been grounded as a form of resistance, subversion, storytelling, and liberation. It ignited the fire of rebellion, giving me language and articulation. A way to channel my rage and passion into a calculated weapon of visible justice in a world of voiceless outsiders. Through that lens, I have always inherently had tension with museums and institutions. They were seen as monolithic, uninviting, places displaying the spoils of pillaging and colonialization where I never felt reflected or welcomed.
Influenced by Hip Hop, graffiti, mural making, the art of taking space, community organizing, and movement building, I’ve spent the last thirty years involved in creative place making as the counterpoint to place keeping, which reinforces the white spacial imaginary seeing Indigenous and communities of color as civic imperfections instead of power brokers and stakeholders of their own lives and experiences. This outlook in process and practice brought me into contact with Elisabeth Callihan, the Head of Multi-Generational Learning at Mia, when she began looking at ways to expand the museum’s neighborhood connections.
In the years following, we collectively developed a partnership between Mia and Hope Community, where I work as the director of organizing and community building. Through this collaboration, called the ARC (Art of Radical Collaboration), we began looking at the possibilities of shifting power by building authentic partnerships that required us to reexamine the dynamics of our role as nonprofits and institutions in community. Questioning who we engage, how we engage, and why.
It was important, in making this shift, to contextually name the role of museums in colonization—operating on stolen land in America—as floor plans for action and restoration. Changing the parameters of museum programming beyond the walls. Strengthening museums as partners in addressing the needs of surrounding communities. Using creative place keeping as a strategy for actions and activities that build spacial justice and healthy communities. Sites of engagement, inclusion, imagination, and possibilities. Not gentrification, removal, containment, and restrictions.
The built and tested relationships of ARC and the ground setting of “Mapping Black Identities” at Mia made an exhibition like “Rituals of Resilience” possible. I don’t view myself nor have orientation as a curator from an institutional perspective, which is why I was initially hesitant to be involved. When this opportunity was presented to me by Elisabeth, I met with Gabriel Ritter, Curator and Head of the Department of Contemporary Art at Mia, to feel him out to see if this was the right situation and if he was a good co-conspirator. Upon our visit, I could tell he had the depth, humility, and intentionality to move forward, based on how he discussed and presented the work.
I approached this exhibit using all of my disciplines, ancestral intuition, and lived experiences to create a sonic landscape that would connect and enhance the artwork in a way that had presence and nuance, still centering the visual. In order to accomplish this, I purposely researched and wrote notes on every artist to understand how and why they created. This provided me the space to look through the parameters of their lens, making connections with my lived experience—making it collectively ours. I never saw myself as an artist in this exhibit as much as a facilitator utilizing an artistic approach to complement and enhance that which is already dynamic in its totality.
“Rituals of Resilience” is about the act of survival under intense pressure and heat. A diamond moment with 58 perfectly angled facets shining maximum light. A place to hide when being in your body isn’t safe. A reimagining of new worlds and possibilities. A culture of preparation, protection, and advancement. The creative culture of Indigenous and diasporic ethnic groups of African descent surviving and dismantling 400 years of white supremacy, colonization, slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow segregation, patriarchy, and homophobia through a visceral fabric of repetitious intentional movements, vibrations, gatherings, acts, symbols, and codes.
Photo credit: Ryan Stopera