06/09/18 • Interview : Heather Jones

Interview: Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor

06/09/18 • Interview : Heather Jones

Interview: Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor

Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor is an artist, filmmaker and community organizer whose film, Mutterede, was recently screened at Rogaland Kunstsenter. The work is a moving tribute to matriarchal heritage, as well as an intimate look into the often complex issues of identity and mother/daughter relationships. Below, the artist describes her impetus behind creating the film, how she arrived at the intersection of art and activism, and how issues of identity manifest in her work.

Heather Jones: I want to speak with you mostly about your recent film Muttererde, but to give a bit of context first, could you tell us a little bit more about your background and how you came to work with art, film, and social organizing?

Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor: I like to think I happened into activism in art as it wasn’t ever my intention to be an activist. My mother was an activist and community organizer. She started one of the first black book clubs in Daytona Beach, Florida and was constantly organizing black history events at my school. I was always very sheepish about it, as are lots of kids with outspoken mothers. I turned to art and was a total theater kid. After studying theater and moving to Berlin, I got more into performance art and art theory. Then I began to see that my work, by virtue of living in a black body, was inherently political. I organized the Black in Berlin salon, a monthly discussion group on race relations in the city as a way to have an outlet for all the frustration I was feeling. I was deeply uncomfortable with the lack of discussion around race in this city and furthermore the complete dismissal of it by the liberal arts community. So now I see that as black people, we often don’t have a choice to sit back and be apolitical. And I finally understand and appreciate my mother’s initiatives.

HJ: The film Muttererde is incredibly moving, and features the personal and familial (most matriarchal) histories of five black femmes. What was the original impetus to make this work, and how did you choose the participants to include?

JLET: The idea for the film came from my research into my matriarchal lineage. I realized that I didn’t know anything about my maternal grandmother, who I never met, and there aren’t many records of her life. The same is true for my great-grandmother and back further down the line. For Black Americans knowledge of our ancestors is few and far between as the history has been erased and systematically destroyed. The easiest way to disenfranchise a people is to erase their history. I started to wonder if this non-knowledge was true for black femmes across the diaspora. The project idea was initially to do live interviews with the femmes but I soon realized that a film would create the archive that we so desperately need.

HJ: Although each of the stories and narrators are distinct, there are several threads running through the film as a whole; histories of trauma, isolation, questions around sexual and cultural identity, as well as themes of strength, forgiveness and reparation. Was this planned on your part, or did these themes emerge as the work took form?

JLET: Not at all planned. The interviews with each femme were intended to be individual episodes (which they are, available on youtube) but as soon as we saw all the finished footage we knew that the stories were connected and we had to make one cohesive film. The fact that there are similar threads of trauma from five individuals from different continents speaks to the staggering affect of colonization and white supremacy worldwide.

HJ: I believe the title of the film translates to Mother Earth. Is that correct? How do you see this title as weaving together the stories in the film?

JLET: One translation of the title is Mother Earth yes but the word Muttererde actually means topsoil. I wanted to make the connection to bringing forgotten stories to the surface in order to heal just as topsoil provides the most nutrients for a plant.

HJ: Many (or all?) of the women featured in the film are creators of some kind, and their voices contain a high degree of reverence for ancestors and elders. The film itself contains text quotes that read: “Wherever you go, you carry your ancestors with you” and “When an elder dies a whole library burns.” Why do you find ancestral knowledge to be important, and do you find that creative practitioners are on the forefront of bringing these kinds of stories to light?

JLET: First, they’re not all women in the film. They are all femme-identifying. But their genders range from transgender man to gender non-conforming. Sadly I don’t see a lot of references to ancestral work in contemporary art. I’m not sure why that is, maybe people think it’s not relevant? Also I think a lot of young artists think that the past has nothing to do with them or they want to escape it in some way because they feel they’re above it.

HJ: Thanks for that distinction. Muttererde was recently screened as Rogaland Kunstsenter. How do you navigate the presentation of these stories to audiences in different geographical and cultural contexts? Is there a specific goal you are trying to achieve in screening this film?

JLET: Sometimes screenings can be tough especially if it’s a mainly white audience. Lots of times white audience members will project their experiences onto me or ask my advice for situations that involve other black people or people of color. Or they’ll ask me to explain something so I become the “expert black person on black peoples issues.” Or they get very defensive about race because they’re uncomfortable. That’s frustrating. My goal is to inject some of the experiences of the african diaspora into art spaces/audiences so that our experiences aren’t projected as a monolith. And my goal is for black people to see themselves in these institutions that have historically told them this space is off limits.

HJ: For those who were not able to attend the recent screening, are there opportunities to view the film?

JLET: The individual portraits of each femme are being released slowly on youtube. The film can be screened on which is like the black netflix. Otherwise, it’s screened live.

HJ: And other than the ongoing screenings of Muttererde, do you have any other upcoming projects or current research that you can share with us?

JLET: I’m starting a Master’s in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths in London in the fall. Come say hi!

Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor (b. 1984, Florida) is an artist, filmmaker and community organizer. Her roots are in the Southern United States, born in Mississippi and bred in Florida. Taylor’s work manifests through performance, text, dialogue, dance and community building for Black People and People of Color. Her work centers on themes of ritual, visibility and identity mythology. She is chiefly concerned with ways to dismantle oppressive institutions and the creation of racial equity in art and theater. She strives to address race politics as a performer, maker and artist. Taylor’s current artistic practice revolves around various states of the interpretive body and how best to mis-manage these expectations. Her advocacy and organizing work stems from contemporary critical race theory. Taylor curated and hosted the almost monthly discursive salon on race politics and race relations ‘Black in Berlin’. 

She has performed at the Barbican Centre of Art (lLondon, UK) Chisenhale Gallery (London, UK) Hebbel Am Ufer (Berlin, Germany) Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin, Germany) Sophiensaele Theater (Berlin, Germany) and The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art (Oslo, Norway).

Her current project Muttererde, a film series that calls for femme forms of ancestral history in the face of the often interrupted historical knowledge of the African diaspora in Europe and elsewhere.