We are honored to have here with us sitting in the gallery Nafis White and her partner Garcia Sinclair. Nafis’ neon sculpture piece, “Can I Get A Witness?” has been one of the centerpieces of the Artists Against Police Violence exhibit at the EMW Bookstore art gallery for June and July of 2015. Today we’ll discuss her inspiration, fears, and hopes regarding her art and the BlackLivesMatter movement.

Nafis, could you introduce your work a little bit — describe it, and tell us about what went into it?

I’d be happy to. Last August, there were a lot of things heating up, and that came to a tipping point when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson. I felt like I needed to say something, do something, react — It was tough to see those images and be speechless. How does one use their art to also talk to this? [Large sigh.] I wanted to make something that was compelling, that would talk, engage people, not just a quick one-liner but had some substance and endurance, and really keep talking about the killing. The constant killing of people of color, and in this case, a young black man.
I had some concerns during that time also — during my childhood I grew up in Ferguson, my grandmother, my aunt, my cousins, my grandfather, and so it’s interesting to see that place you spent so much time in — everything shifts. I wanted to speak honestly and openly about this. So I’m thinking and I’m incubating, and meanwhile there are protests on television or the streams. The gassing, people not able to come in and out of neighborhoods, ID checks, all this crazy, crazy stuff. I had to talk about this. That was August, and as it progressed, it was in my head and I couldn’t shake it during that beginning part of the school year. So what could I say and how could I say it?
That was when the Ferguson hashtag was going crazy, people were on Twitter. There’s a life to something hashtagged, right? It exists, goes away, comes back, and I wanted to make a statement that was just happening, you know, alive. So Garcia’s like, “How do you want to say this? You’ve got to say this,” I was like, “Yeah, you know, can I get a witness?” You know, “Who’s hearing me? Is there anybody fucking hearing me right now? Who knows? All these people are feeling what I’m feeling, or know my experience, or been profiled, or they’ve been stalked, or they’ve been harassed, or they’ve been shot at, it was a collective seeing.” Garcia looked at me and was like, “Now, that’s it.” [Laughter.]
So the piece says in neon, “Can I Get A Witness?” because it is about collective witnessing of all these experiences on a number of levels, from the murders to the stopping, all of that. And so it’s kind of this call — it seemed important that it be illuminated. For me, I was thinking of having something that was ever-present, that you could not actually veer away from, that you could not actually sucked in putting blinders from, and not be there.
Now in that way the piece is perhaps subtle, because what does that phrase actually mean? The phrase is from church, the phrase is like a call and response, the phrase has a lot of life already. So I thought in terms of the piece in general, that it could have a lot of entry points. So the luminescence was important. To light a path, to honor as well — it’s a glow, you just can’t ignore that. It’s also a white light, so I’ll just leave that for debate.
That piece is always shown with a piece of names whenever it goes out to a show, no matter where. It’s been across the country: It was recently in Madison, Wisconsin. It was in New York, it’s been shown in Providence, in Boston, it’s definitely going around.
The names on the list of people who have been killed by police keeps growing. There’s something to really experience, I think, as a way to remember, and think on each line. When it was first envisioned, Michael Brown’s name was on the top. But the names shift, which is, [sigh] it’s a part of the work I didn’t feel initially that I would have such a — I thought I could handle that, you know what I mean, and it’s tough. It’s tough to keep coming back and adding to that list of names and adding to that. And with that comes research. For me, I have to then read and see what’s happening, and [sardonically] “who’s new” to this continued struggle.
Seeing a collecting knowing of support, a call and response of are you hearing me, are you feeling me? I need to illuminate, I need to be seen. And all these things need to be seen. They need NOT be forgotten; they need NOT be forgotten. Part of the trauma of having so much black death — and it’s not just the police are finding black people, the list includes people of all backgrounds — it’s not a singular event.
It’s a lot to keep updating, it’s a lot to keep reading those stories. And yet it happens. I would be happy to not have to deal with that. I’ll be happy when people have the opportunity to stop learning new hashtags. So that’s the reasoning behind it.

AS THE PIECE EVOLVES, THEN, ARE YOU CONSTANTLY EVOLVING? what has shaped your development as an artist?

I’ve always been inspired by art and thank goodness, my dad would always take us to museums, so the way that I use language is visual, more and more. I keep thinking, “Am I any good? I’m gonna try!” Realizing you can communicate, if you consider and research and think and iterate, you can create something that will really resonate with people, and carry on, send those messages in a way that is contemplative, that builds, that creates curiosity.
I am also an activist, I’ve been very involved in things, so it just seemed like a very logical way to move. Not that all my art is political, but a lot of that comes from that center, like when I was an advocate or case manager for LGBTQ youth in Oakland, or doing performances as a queer person in San Francisco, or creating these curated shows with Garcia, interacting with the community. I think both of us use art in variegated ways. It’s a living practice. Something I do as a profession, yes, but also, it’s engrained. I can’t separate it out.

What’s that process of distilling these experiences into A form?

Oh my god. Oh my god. Hmm. Distillation. You just absorb it all — history, economics, women in the workplace, you go to museums, or even if you’re out and about: What stimulates you? I’m very much a people person, so I’m interested in what are people doing, what are they saying, what are they wearing, what are people like? How are they moving through this world? How do they build? I’m interested in textures, tastes, all these things, which come from all these places. Like, the texture and the vibrancy of a radish that’s fresh — can you bring that in and put that into a sculpture?

Why did you choose sculpture as your medium?

Sculpture scared the shit, out, of, me. I took a sculpture class in SF and it whooped, my, ass. I usually walk into a place and I’m like, “I got it.” I feel a confidence. Woodworking: tough. Metalworking: tough. It scared me but also pulled me closer …  You can use absolutely anything. Paper, great. Video, sound, neon. You can go anywhere with it. Also sociology, history — sculpture allows me to be centered but have all these variables in play.

How do you see history and sociology fitting together with your art?

History is important because everything I’m doing now has a historical base. In Jim Crow, in slavery, in experiences of World War II, my grandfathers — one was in Pearl Harbor when the bombs dropped, another was in Italy, doing liberation, you know? One would talk about escaping the fires of the ships, the other would talk about how it was like being a black man in the military and come back and not be able to wear medals or honors that you had achieved. It was like once you came back into this country, they were like, “You’re not allowed, and it is written.” For safety, of course.
The historical background is really important, because then I can really go in depth, and I can hopefully plant some seeds within the work that allow people to think about that. Art history as well, because I would be remiss to say if Glenn Ligon, for example, were not in the room in here with us. Working in neon is something that man started to build. So there’s a lot of paying homage to people in an art historical sense as well, saying “You did that! You did that!” and learning and building from that.
Sociology, my goodness. There’s so much going on right now with, *phew*, class, with riots, with who is authorized, who is recognized, how can we move through? Although much of the work as of late talks about race, but I am also a woman, or queer, or multiracial, I could go on.

Sometimes I sit in this room by myself when the lights are off, AND THE NEON iS LITERALLY A LIGHT IN THE DARK. THERE'S SOMETHING HUMBLING ABOUT THAT, So thank you for that experience. Let’s talk about where you see yourself going now! You mentioned you’re going to London — what do you hope to achieve there?

I should preface this by saying that my partner and I have been married for 13 years, we’re so, so happy. [Smiling widely] So happy. We propelled and pushed each other through school, starting in San Francisco, there was a way to go to get good enough in art, whether it be drawing, welding, printing, to apply to RISD. Then we both got into RISD, which is fairly rare, then we applied to the grad school that we really wanted to go to.
London is, that school is a beast. Goldsmith’s… yeah. RISD was intense and amazing, but very silo-ed. Sculpture is like, sculpture. Don’t go out there to much with industrial design, just stay where you’re staying. Goldsmith is not siloed. Everything goes. If you’re photo, if you’re jewelry, you’re coming in and let’s boogie. That was the school that seemed the most challenging, so let’s do it.
The one thing they asked me during the interview was, “Well, if all this is happening in the US, and so much of your work deals with the US, the black experience, why would you want to leave?” The answer to them was: For sanity, for clarity, and for perspective. I’m not under any guise that in London there are not issues, I am sure that there are issues.
But there comes a time when you just have to get away. You have to unlearn. And really open yourself out. And if you don’t know anything, you’re going to grow, right? So that’s what both of us are looking forward to.