When I first met Jessica Karuhanga, I seated her with the unfriendly black hotties in the Mean Girls’ cafeteria scene that plays in my head. It’s an unfair generalization that has everything to do with Jessica being a woman of colour, a black woman. However guarded she may have appeared to me at first has everything to do with the way many of us people of colour have managed to survive whiteness; protecting ourselves, our space and saving smiles for those closest to us. It’s actually such hard work to undo these habits that once kept us alive, but I am trying to reach out beyond my comfort zones, to push against my biases. I know that not everybody is looking to make new connections or connections with me, but we have to start being kinder to each other, we have to try to help each other undo the damage and get back to softness and healing. I introduced myself to Jessica and we eventually spoke of whiteness and art and white art over Cinnabun and coffee. I’ve also been fortunate to catch her powerful performances and you should be so lucky.
Photos and interview by Karen Campos Castillo.
Recently there was an article written that was critical of the term “Black Girl Magic.” How do you feel about the topic? What does the phrase mean to you?
The feeling the phrase #blackgirlmagic invokes precedes the hashtag. Always. Not the other way around. It’s somewhere in my sister-friend impulsively grabbing my hand and squeezing it and comparing our love to cocoa butter. It is when we succeed but I also think it can include our messy selves. It is felt. It is a grasping. It is a centring. I don’t hold space for the ways these hashtags get co-opted and saturated into blithe gestures and literal clickbait. I do not have the capacity. I’m not on twitter—yet. Blackness is one of the biggest forms of cultural import and export within a capitalist structure.
The gesture of importation is so insidious that most Canadians have a limited understanding of the history of blackness here.
Instead I’ve grown up with folks comfortably projecting me into a superficial understanding of an African-American history. It fosters this notion that Canada was and remains a sanctuary in the north. This projection also erases the nuance and multitude of experiences of blackness.
Our magic is complex.
Cecil Emckee’s Strolling series or Polygot exude #blackgirlmagic to me.
One of your performance pieces involves hair braiding over a period of hours. What is your relationship with your hair?
One of the oldest sensations I remember is my mum massaging hair food into scalp, teasing my locks on through to the ends. She would weave my hair into tiny braids and the various styles I wore felt limitless. One time my dad tried to tend to our hair with an ebony pick. It matched the rings, necklaces, masks and batiks we had around our home growing up. I cried and yelled a lot through this process. I indignantly told my dad to cut my hair off and as a result I rocked a short afro when I was seven. It took forever to grow. The tiny braids were always my favourite. At some point, when I was in grade seven or eight, my mum stopped. This is when I would pull it back into a single ponytail puff or I would straighten it. My sisters and I literally would use a clothing iron to straighten our hair. We burned each other. I got extensions or box-braids for the first time when I was 14. I met a black girl my age and her mother could do braids. We had to drive to Michigan to get the bags of synthetic hair. I chose copper and brown hues. It took hours. My body ached. I slept over and in the morning they made me cereal and then we continued braiding while watching movies. We steamed the ends to seal them. These memories are forms of repetition. The pink lotion, Mane&Tail, and Dark&Lovely. The way I smelled. The scent is important because later on I would only purchase white-hair products. Products that smelled of flowers and models with hair that blew in the wind. We would have to drive to Toronto or cross the border to get hair products. In a way it was easier to smell of flowers. This was a form of self-erasure. Years later when dancing at a party with a black woman, her scent would rub off on my body and conjure all these memories.
How did you transition into a performance artist?
I can be shy in new spaces which comes across as aloof. I needed to work through that shyness. In a way I always was enacting these movements. I used to write scores all the time growing up. My sisters, cousin and I would perform in them. I used to make videos with a camcorder and later on with my webcam. I would record sounds and fuse these with music I loved. I began drawing, then making objects and these objects transformed into installations that implicated the body in ways more powerful then I fully realized. This sort of naturally meandered into performance.
We’ve talked about seeing younger artists of colour come up and be so much bolder and louder than we were in our early 20s. What were you like back then? What would you tell that younger self?
I smiled more. I was self-effacing and overly accommodating. I was so earnest, hopeful and hopelessly romantic. I didn’t really trust anyone. Yet the bit of trust I did emit was ravished. I did not know my power and it is is clear to me now that others saw this light or sweetness. There is all the silencing I put up with from peers complaining about the most banal trivialities with their relationships yet never asked me if I was lonely. They would fill my plate with empty compliments to fill the space of discomfort where I’d hint at blackness or brownness or queerness as halting my movement. They would tell me I was “so fierce”, “intimidating,” “so confidant,” and “so independent”. I craved banality. I was thirsty. I was lonely. I only lived in predominantly white spaces until I was 25. The first time I was asked out on a date ever I was nearly 20. When I visited Toronto growing up, it was always with family in the outskirts so I never experienced the city’s multiplicity and never really felt desirable until I lived here. I was sexually assaulted, threefold, by the time I was 23. In my early twenties I fell in love. He was mixed like me and so our meeting was at the site of beauteous bonding and healing. I fell so deep and we shared so deeply and yet I settled for someone ashamed to call me his girlfriend and to totally recognize me. Now I’m like, Nah and Bye. That was the intersection of so much power and disempowerment. I am more confidant now.
I am moving toward putting myself first in spaces that would prefer to see me silent. That is powerful. In my early twenties I was dreamer. I’m trying to return to that dreamer. I was a poet. And I am returning to poetry.
There are moments when I am envious of the kids that have Amandla Stenberg, Willow, Junglepussy, Le1f, and Angel Haze. Moments where I am envious of the language and tools they have to articulate their queerness and mourning and sickness. To process. But you know, I had Erykah and Lil’ Kim. Younger JPKK – I would hold her. I would sing to her. I would kiss her above her nose where her mama used to. I would tell her to leave when it feels unsafe.
People move to Toronto for their dream, for their art all the time. What do you think is missing from the arts’ scene?
I would say what is missing are the tools to prepare yourself for balancing precarity and mental health which seem to get subordinated. I’m talking about all labour when I say this. Toronto is not an easy site to break through when you enter it anonymously. Personally, I think it can be cold. I resent the lack of class awareness within the art scene but it should not be surprising. What is missing is transparent communication around what the host is paying the artist. Art is my passion but it is also my job and a business made up of transactions. Let’s not pretend otherwise. On that note there is no shortage of paternalistic generosity. There is actually a lot of posturing around transparency. Most of us are precariously employed and breaking ourselves in the name of productivity.
I am more content with slowness. I only take on what pays fairly and what I can realistically perform with a full-time job. I’m letting go of the thirst to fill all the extra morsels of space.
I am comfortable saying no and being selective with the tasks I take on. I have a better understanding of my limits and capacity. Right now I feel pretty blessed. This last year has brought me so many gifts. I feel as though my practice and work is on my terms, and that is important to me.
What’s inspiring you at this moment?
My sisters. They are my pulse.
Interview and images by Karen Campos Castillo