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Building New and Alternative Worlds: A Conversation with Saya Woolfalk

Winter 2021
Winter 2021
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Jazmine Catasús explores the time transcending power of folklore and oral history in her conversation with Saya Woolfalk.

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Saya Woolfalk is a New York–based multi-disciplinary artist. We had an engaging conversation over Zoom about the ways her practice intersects with oral histories, folklore, and alternative worlds. Our wide-ranging conversation touched on influential writers, projects Woolfalk is currently working on, and her tri-part project No Place, The Empathics, and ChimaTEK. The excerpted interview below jumps right into talking about Octavia Butler whose writing has greatly influenced Woolfalk’s work.

saya woolfalk (sw): There are a couple ways that I can talk about oral histories. I like that you brought up Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I am currently working on a new project, which I’ve been developing over the course of the pandemic.... My past work hasn’t dealt specifically with oral histories, but it has dealt with using ethnographic methods and the methods of creating folklore to build alternative worlds. Talking to people who I know, asking them questions, and collaborating with people across disciplines, build the parameters of the story worlds that I make.

I’ve always thought of myself as another kind of singular author, but someone whose authorship is co-created through collaboration, and collecting the ideas and stories of others. I’ve always thought of myself as kind of like a folklorist, in a way, an anthropological folklorist.

jazmine catasús (jc): In thinking about oral histories and doing research on your work, I thought about Zora Neale Hurston. Especially her two books Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, where she goes to the south of the United States, Jamaica, and Haiti, and collects oral histories. Although she’s a writer, she’s also considered an anthropologist in many circles, right? There [are] parallels between you and her, like how she traveled, collected stories and how they informed her writing practice. I thought about your experience in Brazil doing anthropological research and how that informed your practice, moving into your Empathics project.

sw: She’s completely left out of some anthropological textbooks. Which is messed up because she was a very significant anthropologist. She studied with people like Franz Boas and was a colleague of Margaret Mead. Both are considered major anthropologists. I went to Brazil, because I didn’t want to start by making a project about the United States. I wanted to have my own sense of identity and position and have it become kind of unmoored. In Brazil there is a similar colonial history of slavery and a similar kind of racial mixture through immigration, including Asian Brazilians.

I thought it would be really interesting to go to a place like Brazil and think about an alternative way that Black Diasporic multi-raciality realized itself....The utopian vision is not something that is stable, it’s not something that is created once and then is unchanging. It’s at this mutable thing, it’s a moving target. It comes from collective vision.…

I think of the project I’m working on now as something to reorient people in the story world of the Empathics as an alternative American creation myth that deals with North America responding to Hudson River school paintings. There is a fallacy of Hudson River school paintings, what they mean and the kinds of ideologies they distribute. Instead of being anthropological in the sense that I’m collecting contemporary stories, I’m reading oral histories.

This leads me to think of the history of chattel slavery in the Northeast. Sojourner Truth and her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, which was rewritten 12 years later and re-transcribed to the one that we know by a white suffragette.

jc: I did not know that.

sw: The speech that she gave doesn’t even have the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman” in it. There are all sorts of things in that speech that weren’t what she wrote or said. It was a white suffragette written in a Black southern dialect, so that it would appeal to a broad audience and create a specific vision of who Sojourner Truth was.… There are these reinforcements of negative stereotypes of a Black woman at the time. To me that’s just this fabulation in history that is so much a part of the American story, that embodies a certain kind of power dynamics. My project is intending to address some of that. I love that this issue is about oral histories, you’re approaching me at this moment where I’m thinking about that as a part of my practice.

jc: This brings me to two things when I think about oral histories. One, how Hurston collected folklore and how oral history roots us in the past. And [two] about how Kindred is about time travel. [Dana] jumps back and forth from the past to the present. But her presence in the past is the connection to the future, to a possible future. Right? So, oral history roots us in the past, grounds us in the present, and can also tether us to the future.

sw: Absolutely.

jc: Because oral history is told by word of mouth, we can kind of fill in the holes that allow us to imagine the future but also protect what is from the past. In the preface to an older version of Mules and Men [Hurston] explains how it was not as easy for people to collect stories because Black people in her town or in general are very protective of their histories.

sw: Well, I wonder why? [Laughs] I mean, you have this white suffragette transforming language to her own purposes, to reinforce very specific narratives. It’s original appropriation and co-option, then that becomes history.

jc: [Hurston] quotes one of her neighbors who says, “He [white men] can read my writing but … can’t read my mind.” So, these oral histories are protected, because they are best not written down. When something is written down, it is limiting, like archives are limiting in a way... to a speculative imagination. How do objects, in terms of your practice, act as evidence? How do they embody oral histories?

sw: The way that I have always thought about my work is that the objects that I make allow the future to happen in the present. They’re kind of gateway portal objects, these liminal objects that allow us to experience something today that we are only speculating about…. It’s important to me, in my practice, to make things that are in the physical world. So that people encounter an object that takes them to this place. The place is actually here now. It’s a kind of time travel that’s happening, in your present. I’m often thinking about the simultaneity of time.…It’s not a far future. It’s a near future. It’s like two minutes from now.

It’s time travel into a near future that could happen any moment. There’s this kind of obsessive futurity in the work. Now, I’m thinking about collective past and collective histories... I’m curious as to how it’s going to activate itself, because it’s such a different project for me.

jc: Why is the project different?

sw: It’s different because traditionally what I’ve done is avoided markers of American hegemony....[Now] I’m looking at pictures of George Washington, at Hudson River school paintings, and at The Rising Sun Chair. They shaped the way that we understand history, and what history is in the United States. I’m trying to deal with them straight on, shifting them.

jc: These are material objects you’re looking at and you’re analyzing this relationship between the material objects and their audiences? Are you contextualizing these objects in a different way?

sw: What I’m trying to do is explode them and show what a fabulation they are. A strategy I use is, I take something and I pull it apart. I make you feel like the thing isn’t stable anymore. That’s what I’m interested in, in terms of reimagining history.

I’m really interested in forcing people to look at something and then having them no longer assume that that object is stable. I’m trying to force the instability of an object so that we can really look at it, question and figure out what exactly is going on.

jc: When you say “question it as stable” you mean question it, in terms of historical artifact, as evidence?

sw: Yes. As evidence. Absolutely. Evidence is something true, when in fact, it’s ideology.

jc: Oral history has changed a bunch of times through word of mouth. So, it’s unreliable, right? You’re saying, well, objects are not that reliable.

sw: Yeah, absolutely. I like that saying,“We hold these truths to be selfevident” [in the Declaration of Independence (US, 1776)]. The intention is to undermine our stable conceptions of truth, and then offer alternative fabulations coming out of stable objects that we assume are true.

jc: It’s apparent in how you present your work. Like the Empathetic Institute—you present it as an anthropological narrative. There’s this race of beings, you have these museum displays, and they have these ‘artifacts.’ That is very much building a narrative that could be real. Could you explain that narrative for me about the Empathics?

sw: It’s a tripartite project, it starts with No Place, it goes to the Empathics and then to ChimaTEK. No Place is a future utopian world. The Empathics are people in the present who find these bones in the woods of upstate New York, and they are No Placian bones that have been sent back from the future into the past. The bones have a fungus, and that fungus stimulates their mutation.

Then the Empathics establish the Institute of Empathy and invite people to choose to become an Empathic. This is an important part of the story, because people assume that empathy is something that is innate, or for people that grow up crossing cultures, or there’s all these kinds of biologization of ways of being, when in fact, all these behaviors are learned behaviors. [In the Institute of Empathy] people can choose to learn by behaving empathically.

jc: I would like to close it out with a little bit of papermaking. What’s your favorite fiber?

sw: That’s a good question. When I was an artist in residence at Dieu Donné I worked a lot with abaca. I love its flexibility. Its mutability. I love its translucency. I love the way that it feels in your hands.

jc: Did you make your head sculptures out of abaca?

sw: They are made from abaca and then painted with linen....I would come every day with some other random crap to put in the pulp. Definitely not a purist way of paper[making].

jc: A speculative way of making paper.

sw: It was definitely a speculative way of making paper, because we were like “I hope this works.”

Saya Woolfalk, An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011, 40 x 30 inches, archival ink jet print on watercolor paper. Photo: John Groo. All photos courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. facing page: Saya Woolfalk, Guided Dream Incubation (Debbie and Jessica), 2011, 40 x 30 inches, archival ink jet print on watercolor paper. Photo: John Groo.

Installation view, back to front, clockwise: Saya Woolfalk, Empathic Hide #5 (2014, 60 x 40 inches), Empathic Hide #4 (2014, 60 x 40 inches), Empathic Shed #2 (2015, 26. x 10 x 11 inches), Empathic Shed #6 (2015, 27. x 6. x 8 inches), in “Present Bodies: Papermaking at Dieu Donn.,” at BRIC, 2019. Photo: Jason Wyche. Materials include linen and cotton pulp, abaca paper, embroidery floss, synthetic felt, plastic beads, fabric, plastic sequins, plastic rhinestones, cotton doilies, cut lace paper, wood, plastic bones, plastic, mirror, cotton fabric, sticks, painted feather butterflies.

Close detail of Saya Woolfalk, Empathic #4, 2014, 60 x 40 inches.

Saya Woolfalk, Installation view of Utopia Conjuring Chamber, Institute of Empathy, Greene County, NY circa 2012 (15 feet high x 170 inches deep x 28 feet wide, handmade linen and abaca paper, cotton fabric, mannequins, felt, fabric paint, wood, latex paint, polystyrene foam, plastic bones, synthetic felt, plastic sequins, Converse sneakers) and Hides and Sheds from North American Empathics (linen and cotton pulp, plastic mirrors, wood, plastic bones, abaca paper, embroidery floss, synthetic felt, plastic beads, feathers, fabric paint, cotton fabric, synthetic hair, plastic rhinestones, cotton doilies), from “The Empathics” at the Montclair Art Museum, 2012. Photo: Peter Jacobs.

Saya Woolfalk, Installation view of Self Portrait (Words by Sojourner Truth), 2021, 74 x 32 inches, with Hudson River School landscape paintings in the collection of the Newark Museum of Art in “Saya Woolfalk: Tumbling into Landscape” at the Newark Museum of Art, July 29, 2021–Summer 2023. Photo: Richard Goodbody. right: Saya Woolfalk, Self Portrait (Words by Sojourner Truth), 2021, 74 x 32 inches, hand-painted, stained Thai mulberry paper and Bristol paper, Japanese gold foil paper, watercolor, gouache, Gudy glue, acrylic gel medium, digital print on Hahnemuhle paper, methyl cellulose, gum arabic; substrate: Nepalese Lhakpa paper chine colled on Arches paper. Photo: Richard Goodbody.