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Knockdown Center’s Latest Show Celebrates Women Artists of the African Diaspora

'MAMI' means to bring about provocative art happenings led by women artists.
August 21, 2016, 11:50am
All photos by Kearra Amaya Gopee, courtesy of Dyani Douze and Ali Rosa-Salas. Salome Asega with Ayodamola Okunseinde, Iyapo Repository (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

Amidst the sprawling, cavernous architecture of the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens, a radical and challenging exhibition featuring female artists of the African Diaspora is making waves with audiences. The interdisciplinary collection of works tackles Knockdown’s large gallery spaces with ease. Mixing ambitious installation, video, sculpture, photography, and virtual reality, the exhibit offers a seamless yet intentionally confounding, experience for viewers. MAMI, co-curated by Dyani Douze and Ali Rosa-Salas, brings together a provocative, dexterous roster that includes Salome Asega, Nona Faustine, Doreen Garner, Aya Rodriguez-Izumi, Rodan Tekle, plus collaborative duo MALAXA.


The show examines the pantheon of African water deities known collectively as Mami Wata, a sometimes-half-aquatic, gender-bending, often-contradictory plurality of beings. Douze and Rosa-Salas describe Mami Wata as being “called upon by those pursuing wealth, wisdom, emotional guidance, and sexual liberation. However, contrary to monolithic representations, Mami Wata is the embodiment of hybridity.”

Aya Rodriguez-Izumi, Offering (2016).JPG

Aya Rodriquez-Azumi, Offering (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

We caught up with the curators after one of their accompanying public programs: MAMI Market, a day-long event featuring vendors, workshops, and performances all linked to the tenets of their curatorial vision.

The Creators Project: How did you choose the artists for MAMI?

Ali Rosa-Salas: We’ve known, and worked with Salome for a while. But so much of the show came together because of online communication. We learned about Nona from an article on the Huffington Post. Tabita Rezaire and Alicia Mersy of MALAXA, we’ve never met in real life; they’re in Johannesburg and Tel Aviv. Doreen, we also found online—but she’s Brooklyn-based!

We found out about Aya, who’s in her first year of an MFA at SVA, on Instagram. Rodan’s been in the game for a while. She’s a new media artist, designer, art director, but this is one of the first times she’s contextualized in an exhibition. Honestly, even the local relationships were cultivated online.

Rodan Tekle, TFW your Data (2016).JPG

Rodan Tekle, TFW your Data (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

You've stated, “MAMI isn't yet another space to project respectability politics on women of color's identities, creative practices, and ways of being.” It felt pointed and direct. 

ARS: It comes back to our desire to highlight that Mami Wata cannot be grasped singularly—even which pronouns to describe them. It resonated with us as women of the African Diaspora as, similarly, we’re not monoliths; we, too, have multiple identities. For instance, I'm reminded on Facebook about things I've posted from like five years ago… Half of it makes me shake my head. It reminds me how much my thinking and self representation is always changing.

'Initiation' a performance by Aya Rodriguez-Izumi and Lynnese Page at MAMI Opening, 8/6/16.JPG

Aya Rodriguez-Izumi with Lynesse Page, Initiation (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

The work is open to critique, but who thinks it’s their business to critique the women, as individuals, in the show?

ARS: Recently, we’re seeing these “all-women” shows, contextualizing all the artists by a singular “X” element. That’s not what MAMI, or Mami Wata, is about. We want the Y, the Z, the A, B, and C, too.

Flag raising ceremony for FLAG 4 GOD by MALAXA (2016).JPG

Flag-raising Ceremony for MALAXA’s FLAG 4 GOD (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

DATE NIGHT table at MAMI Market 8/13/16 .JPG

DATE NIGHT’s Table at MAMI Market, Saturday, August 13th at MAMI, Knockdown Center

The show is, and I mean this as an absolute compliment, often disorienting.

Dyani Douze: That’s because the media in the exhibition isn’t singular either. And it’s why we curated so many different public programs. Every aspect reflects a pantheon of practices and ways of being.

Smart Girl Club Healing Workshop at MAMI Market 8/13/16.JPG

Smart Girl Healing Club Workshop at MAMI Market, Saturday, August 13th at MAMI, Knockdown Center

Doreen Garner, Untitled Dissection (2016).JPG

Doreen Garner, Untitled Dissection (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

You’re giving the artists space and trust. They don’t even all agree on the exhibition’s topic. Doreen Garner, in an article for The Fader, called Mami Wata, “a distraction from very real black women that are powerful, selfless, and confident.”

Douze: [laughs] Doreen’s comments were on point!


ARS: People thought we’d be upset by her comments for some reason.

Douze: We weren’t upset at all. Doreen was about the show from day one, but she was clear with us on her perspective. Why would we want to produce a show where every artist has the same take. Ali and I are all about the contradictions, the multiple reads.

Nona Faustine in front of her work She Came to Me One Day (2012).JPG

Nona Faustine in front of her work, She Came to Me One Day (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

Salome Asega, P0SSESSI0N (2016).JPG

Salome Asega, P0SSESSI0N (2016) at MAMI, Knockdown Center

The scope of the audience that’s come through MAMI is huge. How does that feel?

Douze: Whenever I’m making work as an artist, I create for other women, femme and non-binary folks of color. But as a curator, I do think about a wider audience. After the opening and MAMI Market, I got feedback from so many different types of people, intergenerationally, saying that we all needed this, that they were feeling very uplifted by the turnout and range of people supporting the artists, vendors, speakers, and performers.

ARS: We've really envisioned MAMI as a hub of activity, and want to make the most of this home base while we have access to it. The artworks serve as the anchors of this home which keep us grounded as we crack up, debate, hug, drink, and dance together.  We aim to do this work with love and empathy, and by dispersing authorship through chain curatorial strategies. How can we help spread resources as far and wide as possible? How can we hold each other closer while also letting go?

MAMI Market_17.JPG

TOP RANK MAGAZINE Live Podcast Episode with Doreen St. Felix, Arianna Gil, Jenna Wortham and Ryann Holmes, Hosted by Isabel Flower and Marcel Rosa-Salas at MAMI Market, Saturday, August 13th at MAMI, Knockdown Center

Soul Line Dance Class at MAMI Market 8/13/16.JPG

Soul Line Dancing Class at MAMI Market, Saturday, August 13th at MAMI, Knockdown Center

Performance by Quay Dash at MAMI opening.JPG

Opening Night Performance by Quay Dash, Saturday, August 6th at MAMI, Knockdown Center

rayo & honey table at MAMI Market 8/14/16.JPG

rayo & honey Table at MAMI Market, Saturday, August 13th at MAMI, Knockdown Center

MAMI is on view at Knockdown Center in Maspeth, New York through September 4th. The closing party, RUDE GYAL presented by FAKE ACCENT, takes place on on September 3rd.


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