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Reading, Writing, Tenderness and Space: An Interview with Mara Duvra

It seems as if collective moments of tranquility and stillness seldom happen through the cultural landscape that we are accustomed to in the 21st century. Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival, the literary basis of Mara Duvra’s current exhibition at SooVAC, And When the Sun Rises, instills this aforementioned hope for a setting in which we are not preoccupied with the past or future, wholly living in the now, understanding our presence in the now and doing so tenderly. Together, Mara and I discussed the nature of tranquility and calm in regards to her work, its pertinence to the body and identity, as well as the extensive influence that research and writing has on her practice.


John Herbert: Do you have anything currently in the works apart from your upcoming SooVAC show?


Mara Duvra: Aside from the Jerome show which is up now, I have a show up at Gustavus that opens on November 6th. After that show I am taking a hiatus.


JH: Ha, you have been really busy lately.


MD: So yeah, I just juried an exhibition at Silverwood Park which opened last night.


JH: How did that go?


MD: It went really nice. I really liked the way Eileen (Cohen) put everything together, and it was nice meeting the other artists.


JH: What are some important keepsakes or items in your studio that spark interest in your work currently or in the past?


MD: I don't have a studio, but I guess books are very important to me both as a collection item and as inspiration for making work. Honestly text is so important, I am always returning to quotes, that's really my thing.


JH: Outside of the studio are you working with libraries and/or different archives?


MD: No. I worked in a bookstore for a little while and so I would always be in the poetry section scoping out books, and then in grad school I took a poetry class and I felt like that professor opened up a wide world of what is possible through poetry. But usually what I do is whatever or whoever I am reading, I look at what that writer is reading, and so I will find new works through them. And what I do while I am reading is that I take extensive notes about the things that they’re talking about. So I just have a little quote book and a quote document too.


JH: Going down the rabbit hole of reference! Are there any poets you are really into right now or any that have influenced And When the Sun Rises outside of Audre Lorde?


MD: Aisha Sasha John, Dawn Lundy Martin, Lisa Robertson, who else? Teju Cole’s not a poet but he is a really great writer. There’s a lot.


JH: Outside of poetry are there any other sources of literary inspiration?


MD: I like to read essays. Christina Sharpe wrote this book “In the Wake”, and she’s talking about wake of the ship and water, and the word “wake” as this metaphor for talking about Black lives. And then Alexis Pauline Gumbs, she was actually at the University of Minnesota for a while as a Winton Chair. Bell Hooks is not a poet and I love, love her writing.


JH: Are there any artists that you’re really into right now, or any that you have sought out for reference for this show?


MD: Not for this specific show, but I guess for everything. Ann Hamilton, Leslie Hewitt, Lorna Simpson, of course, and Carrie Mae Weems are all very inspirational. Tia Simone Gardner who’s a local artist, I love talking to her.


JH: A part of your work I find very interesting is the juxtaposition of these vast landscapes next to close confines of space, like in the bedroom, and then you also seem to make a connection between the two. Having vast landscapes seem somewhat closed in at times and then the interior being boundless. Is that something you have always been drawn to or is that more of a recent development in your work?


MD: I think it’s a progression. I think I have oscillated between working with the body, working with landscape; thinking about the sort of ephemeral or more poetic idea of space, and now, thinking about it in terms of the body using the same lens that I was using when I was working more ephemerally, thinking about space as a place that you can actually touch or imagine. So now I am trying to think of it in relation to the body because I want to talk about women of color and put them in the same light, thinking about this wonder of it all. There is this phrase that Gaston Bachelard talks about in his book Poetics of Space called “intimate immensity”, and its thinking about the closeness and immense feeling that you can get in feeling close to someone or in understanding someone’s interior thoughts. He is talking about space in metaphysical terms, he’s talking about nooks, he’s talking about the home as a place to dwell.


JH: I feel like after seeing your work at the White Page and then more recently your work at the Jerome exhibition at MCAD, I realized that there aren’t that many Minnesotan artists that employ tactile opportunities for folks to touch and actually see hold written elements up close. Is that something that you are going to continue doing?


MD: Yeah! I want people to engage with the text. So at the White Page show I had a shelf with books, and the feedback I got was that people felt intimidated by the books, like “oh I’ve never heard of this book” or “I don’t know if I am allowed to pick it up”. So my tactic this time was to take text and quotes from things that I thought were essential to the work and just put them on a page so that people could pick it up and interact with it. At some point I would like to move more towards an installation that would be a reading room that would be a longer term installation, inviting other writers and artists to inhabit the space but all within this lens of reading these texts that I think are essential.


JH: Going back to reading, I have a question about you looking back on and being so immensely invested in reading, or reading journals or essays from the past and present. Is there a way that by looking back on these histories that you are trying to guide a future out of it? Maybe guessing what the future might be through these writings and working with them?


MD: No, I think I am very invested in the present because I feel like all of these writers are talking about histories and talking about the present and talking about the future. But, in a way that I am interested in impacting people right now; yes this can maybe create some sort of future thinking in terms of ideas about the self or ideas about how you want to see yourself in the world. I am really invested in creating a moment for people that is very centered on right now, because I do think that a lot of people, myself included, spend a lot of time thinking about something that is not the present that is always back or forward, and there’s something very calm and meditative about this moment.


JH: Currently, you and Prerna have two shows in one space. Had you met her before this show, and if so, did you have any first impressions of her?


MD: Yeah I had met her before this, I think she’s great. I don’t know her very well but I love her. I think she’s awesome! I love her work!


JH: You mentioned this idea of a long term installation of a reading room that seems kind of like a dream project of yours. If you had all of the means available and the exact space and time frame that you wanted, what would be your dream project?


MD: I guess my dream project is that I want to create artists’ monographs for female artists of color and I would want it to be a long extensive project, where I am doing research about their work and lives, and invite writers and poets to write about them. I am very interested in creating a sort of library of text around artists that may have not been recognized, and in that dream world I also have a space where their work would be shown and or other artists’ work that is relative to their work would be shown, having events around speaking and conversation, eating and gathering about them as well.


JH: Do you have any advice to other artists out there at this time?


MD: For a year I just decided to say yes to everything, and you can always say you’re not ready to do something, but saying yes puts a little bit of a fire under you to work on a project. I think committing yourself to things outside of your own personal studio space or own personal world helps you develop and make work that is interesting for people to look at and create conversation and relationships around. I also think getting out and looking at other work is helpful, like I feel invested in this community because I talk to the artists and I go to their shows, and I think that is one of the things that generating ideas is conversation and being curious.


JH: Is there a quote that you have been digging right now or any words to leave on at this moment?


MD: Here is a quote that I like; its Jenny Holzer. I don’t know if she wrote this. She says, “it is in your self interest to find a way to be very tender.” And that is something that I am really interested in because I feel like tenderness is not something that we talk about culturally; it’s usually resilience. But I think to be tender means that you have to be present, and that means that you are sort of able to be scathed.

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