Constellation is a cohort of seven artists, Constellation: Video Storytelling, each creating a short video to be presented in a looped series that will be projected onto the downtown Saint Paul Public Library – George Latimer on Rice Park. Videos shall interact with the architecture of the library building, transforming it into new visions for public space and public knowledge. Artists include: Za’nia Coleman; Boo McCaleb; SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE; Witt Siasoco; Miko Simmons; Jonathan Thunder; and Moira Villiard.
Za’Nia Coleman is an interdisciplinary artist experimenting with textiles, digital media, and cultural curation. Her primary medium is film focusing on documentary, oral history, and digital projections. The goal is to experiment with how to visualize the intersections of the archive, Black Folklore, and Black Science Fiction. The root of her work is archiving Black traditional and historical practices around love, pleasure, cultural expression, and community building. She is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Tangible Collective, an art collective that creates space devoted to Black Millennial thought and expression. Za’Nia holds a Bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and Film Theory and Culture.
Tell me, what was your first medium as an artist? What did you start in?
I started doing fashion design when I was in college. I’ve been sewing since I was 10, but when I was going to St. Kate’s, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I switched to documentary oral history, working with cameras and simultaneously. I was working with a youth group at Intermediate Arts called Media Active, and I gained more documentary experience there. Most of my work involved moving images, cameras, and the digital world. I got into editing. I started experimenting with manipulating images in post-production, so I would say between costume design, sewing, textiles, and then moving images, those would be my first mediums.
What was it about fashion design that you did not want to do anymore?
I was in an introductory sewing class, and we had been working on the same garment for about three weeks at a time. I came from theater and costuming world, so there were quick turnarounds. You are not making ready-to-wear things; you are making things that can be held for a three month or a two-month run – whatever that is. It was just not fun and the breakdown of it all, in terms of academic or textbook vibe, made it not fun anymore. I was like, “Oh, don’t do this.” I called my mom to say I needed to change my major, and it felt very devastating to me, because I had been sewing since I was 10. I am here wondering what the new plan is, and my mom tells me, “People change their majors all the time.
My mom was incredibly supportive and encouraging. She told me, “If there is something that you are doing that you do not like, make a new plan.” From that point, I was making a new plan, and film and moving images became a part of the new plan.
When it comes to doing creative work and failure, do you feel like you have to fail at something to be able to build something new?
I think I am just now getting comfortable with that. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I tend to develop in private. By the time people see it, I have been working on it and critiquing myself for an extended period of time. Skillwise, nothing I show is going to be horrible, but on my own, I strongly prefer quality control, perfecting my craft, and how I show things. I think you can only really get better at that through showing them, so there really isn’t much of a way to do it in private. In that regard, I’m developing the practice of failing in public, experimenting in public, critiquing myself, improving and making adjustments, and finally seeing how things are received.
Do you take feedback from people?
I prefer to watch how people react. Even though I am really interested currently in abstract mediums and abstract representation of images, I still like a certain consistent level of clarity or emotion to be evoked. Even though a lot of my work right now is abstract, I am in a place of experimenting with how to make the abstract translate. For instance, how much context is needed and is not needed, what things feel intuitive or organic and have natural reactions, and what makes people curious and wonder what they are looking at.
When you come up with a concept for a piece, how do you take what is in your mind and explain it to people?
I feel like all my work has been around Black expressions of life, intimacy, relationships, familial ties, traditions, and culture. For me, that was the through line from my work, so that allows me to express an intent and the engagement, I want to happen with the work. I think this gives enough clarity for people to be interested in seeing whatever it looks like.
Why is it important for you to share that Black expression? How do you explain that without sounding like you are on a soapbox?
I think with the importance of speaking and centering Black experiences, Black ways of being, Black ways of engaging with art, or traditional ways of using art, it is important to me because they are the fabrics of how I was raised. It’s the imagery of how I was raised around the people I was raised, and how being an artist and picking what you want to talk about in your work finds you. It becomes a thing that feels right, and as of late, I do things that feel good. While I’m still developing — projection mapping and projections are a new thing for me, and I’m still developing within that medium — I am a history person and an archive person, so I love to pull from archives, past imagery, manipulating past imagery. I think there is something about digital worlds and real world now, as well as all the dimensions and what happens in between. How do we translate that in a time where there is obviously reference to analog, and digital is becoming increasingly more digital. I think finding ways to use those to actively remember things now and creating a culture around remembering and engaging with memory and seeing what we find.
History is remembered differently by everyone — even you and me here. I could remember this as a fine afternoon, but then you could have been feeling stressed. It is filtered through that person. How do you express something so that it is universal to everybody? Or do you care to?
The universal thing to everybody feels tricky, for me, because I am specific. When I am making work, I’m thinking about it from a Black film perspective and really being interested in allowing people that have my experience to feel seen in certain spaces. Mostly, on a universal tip, it is not necessarily related to the imagery, but more-so related to the feelings that are evoked. It is what comes to mind when you think about your family, or if you were thinking about happiness. If I am showing images of Black children jumping rope — all kids have memories of playing when they were younger and being outside, so people can find their own entry points. Although, I still tend to focus on Black femmes feeling represented and evoking those emotions for them in public spaces.
Do you feel you achieve that through your work?
I think I’m getting there. Especially working in the abstract and showing some of the that imagery while making it resonate and making people see it in a unique way to reveal what that
brings up for them. I know what it brings up for me, so I’m still experimenting with that. I think when people find out the found footage that I am using in pieces, they realize, “Oh, that is what that image is.” There is a certain level of like discovery happening within it for both me and the people looking at it.
Can you tell me about Nightlight and that first cohort that you worked on for Public Art Saint Paul? Was that your first-time doing video projector? What was the learning curve for you like?
Yes, it was. The learning curve, for me, with projection mapping was this idea of public art. I feel like projection mapping is a very public art centered activity. Yes, you can do it in closed spaces, but you lose the grandeur of it all. The public art aspects and how people engage with public art, and what context and information is there — all of that.
Was it difficult for you? Did it feel natural?
It was not difficult, but it was not natural either. Oftentimes, some of the subject matter I am interested in feels more intimate. It is a task finding the pieces that you show in public, uncontrolled with who is looking at it.
Do you ever care how people interpret your art? Or is that something out of your control once they are viewing it?
I care a little bit, but it is less about if they did not like it and more-so if nothing was clear. I think I care more about that and the clarity or if it felt like, they understand what I am doing versus they don’t like what I did but still understood. I prefer that more.
How do you feel you have evolved from the Nightlight project to where you are now with Constellation and your other work?
The Nightlight cohort set me up in a space with my artistic practice where I was more interested in experimenting and playing and having fun with things. Being interested in oral history and documentary, sometimes it’s a serious subject matter, so it’s finding how to play with these images and the subject matter. How do we pull people in? How do we use it in diverse ways? Nightlight definitely set me up to experiment more with my craft and push the bounds of what I can do coming from being a moving image artist with video and documentary, and then throwing that up on something — whether it is a wall, a building, or a sculpture. I am curious about what else can I do with this.
What did you document before? Was it interviews?
Yes, I am a big oral history person. I love recording people’s stories about things, whether it is cultural, culturally relevant pieces, about Black hair, about relationships, about love, or relationships to your mom. Things like that. I also did a lot of freelance work documenting and making content for different orgs and things like that.
Do you find stories everywhere?
Why do you think that is? Has that always been the case?
I find stories everywhere because I enjoy other people’s perspective. I love where they have been, where they come from, what they have done, who they have met, how they have thought about things. I am always looking for a coming-of-age story because I believe I’m in my coming of-age stage; adulting is a mystery to me.
Why do you think that is a mystery to you?
Because I identify as an artist, but I still have a lot of footing and Type A logical ways of being. I see other artists and feel like they are free. I don’t think I have learned to be as free in my artistry and how I show up, as other artists who are. Then I see a lot of similarities with people who are not artists, and they are like, “I have no idea what is going on over there and it seems weird.” I think I fall somewhere in between, so I’m always interested in how those people think about things. The part of my brain that is artsy is always thinking, always dissecting things, always being very froufrou about everything. I think everybody has those thoughts, but only certain people choose to tap into them, while others don’t.
Are you okay if you never get to that point?
I think so. I don’t know what it would look like for me to be on that end of the spectrum, so I prefer to be somewhere between logical, artsy, dreamy and grounded. I like that medium.
What do you want to see for the art community? How do you think agencies that have power can help support artists – financially and other ways?
I think what would be considered general op funds for artists, in the same way that orgs get general funds, I think the culture of having to apply for grants for specific, preconceived ideas can be very limiting. Especially in comparison to dedicated funds or experimentation and research. That is where good art comes from. You get stuck in this cycle of people who write grants, based on expectations everybody else knows. So a certain topic or medium is hot, and that is the deciding factor. It gets linear, similar, and boring, so the things that come out of experimentation and play look and feel better.
I also think funding is currently pushing people towards community engagement. There are multiple kinds of artists, where some artists make art to put in spaces to have people look at it. Then there are people whose art revolves around community engagement, but those are different people. Community engagers are in demand, and it is not to say that it is the responsibility of artists to do that, but not everybody is equipped for that. Some people are trying to bridge the gap or make themselves community oriented, but in reality you’re just an oil painter — which is fine! There have always been just oil painters. I have never heard anybody say, “Picasso was a community organizer.” – I have never heard any of this. It is a new phenomenon that artists are also community engagers, attempting to get people who don’t necessarily like community, try to bring community in and it’s like, “Should you be doing that?” Because they are different things.
Tell me about Constellation and your piece. Do you feel like what you produced initially is what it is going to be?
Yes, with Constellation and currently with my projection mapping work, it has a through line. I am really interested in bringing emotions of memory, Black joy, and reflection with abstraction. I’ve been refining this sort of play on images and play on things that are recognizable, but then also adding in different elements to it. I think it is going to be the same thing that I initially ideated on. There is the piece that I’m still refining a bit, for final showing. The vibe I am going for is a bedtime story with Toni Morrison. I read Sula recently, and I love the framing that she offers for the bottom, which is this town where these Black folks live that happens to be the top of the valley. For Black folks, often there’s this reference of heaven being where you get total joy and freedom and in this physical world, there may be suffering, but Heaven is going to be better in some capacity. For my work with this projection, I’m aiming for a liminal space between what will be the bottom, or the communities that we occupy and this definitive or omniscient place that is better. I think about using visuals, but describe that liminal space, and try to bring up those emotions or pose those questions too. My through line and my intention has stayed the same. Visually, it is an alignment with the look I have been developing over the past few years. I am excited about that.
What are you excited about when you share your work?
One of the things that I like about showing my work is when people see the image clearly, at some point, so I love showing it in many different abstract forms, and then showing little pieces of it in a very digestible, literal translation of even realization of what an image was. I love that little “aha” moment that people get from looking at my work and once they get the full context, you can then interpret what it could mean in how it is being shown. That is what gets me excited.
Why Toni Morrison?
Since college, I have always loved Black feminist theory and there are certain authors at certain times that guide my work. Toni Morrison has been very consistent for the past three or so years. Toni Morrison, as well as Saidiya Hartman and Zora Neale Hurston. I love the folkloric representation of Black femme identity and what it can mean, what it did, and how it reflects in the present. I love referencing that era of Black womanhood and identity and then trying to figure out how it shows up now, what it looks like now and how it can be used now.
What are some misconceptions about being a Black femme, or being a Black woman that you just want to shrug off?
I have been lucky enough to create art around folks that look like me and mirror some of my experiences, however the outside gaze is not something that I necessarily know too much about. Even elements of how I do not want to be portrayed or what people think of me that are outside of my culture – it does not cross my mind too often. I have been lucky enough to work in this silo of affirmation and comfort. I am still able to create and pull from that place, especially as I get older. I do not really give much attention to opinions or conversations like that exactly. I think the statement that is made with having work that is unapologetically Black is that I don’t care to have those conversations, but then that also references back to why I love Toni Morrison. All of her work evades the white gaze, and it is not centered around that. Sure, while white folks may read the books, but it is not really about their understanding, but more so about the Black understanding of Black people relating to the work. I don’t really make work that answers or reflects on the white gaze. The only time I may be sensitive about it is if I am showing intimate details or things that feel intimate, which are then put into public spaces. Outside of that, though, I do not really create from a place where that is in my mind.
What do you want to do with your art after Constellation?
I am currently working on my first solo exhibition, part of the Emerging Curators Institute, which opens around the same time as Constellation. It is the first time I will be merging projection mapping and video manipulation, with my love for archive and oral history. I am developing my look and practice with those mediums and what that looks like intersectionally. I have always called myself an interdisciplinary artist, so I am trying to find more ways to interdiscipline the work. I’d like to make it more apparent as some people have questions about what you do, so the goal is to have clear examples of what it looks like to bring projection mapping and archiving together. To show that this is what it looks like to bring oral history and textiles together. That is some of what I am looking forward to in the future. Finding diverse ways to merge those ideas and mediums that feel representative of my intention and the feeling I am trying to evoke.
What do you feel 27-year-old Za’Nia would tell St. Kate Za’Nia?
I think if I could look back and tell myself something, when I was originally changing my mind about what I wanted to do, it would be something like: You are free falling. Find ways to find stability in the freefall, but do not run away from it because that is where you find things. Experiment and play because things will work themselves out at some point. It is not your timing at all. Also, do things that make you happy. Find ways to feel like you are making accomplishments and honoring your intentions. Have fun and keep summer break. 20-year-old Za ‘Nia is definitely different than 27-year-old Za ‘Nia – especially in energy levels. I need a nap all the time.
Does success for you now look different than it did back then?
For me, success looks like continuing to do things that I am moved to do. I was making it before I had funding, and I’m sure I will be making art after I have funding. Even doing things for myself and using the spaces I can access to do that work and bring people in. You can always make a pot of chili and invite people over or have a salon in your living room.
Is that art too?
Yeah, I love it! I love that vibe as well as the small, intimate vibe. I love the idea of bringing people in in that way. Anything that references or feels like the Harlem Renaissance – like, people stacking up in hot brownstone, listening to readings or performances, whatever it was like — art can happen anywhere. Art is a way that we commune with each other and interact with one another. I think even if I were not gathering with the intent of sharing art, that would still happen.
It looks like you have a big community, but why is it important for you to bring in community?
I feel like my love for art is a secondary response to bringing the community together. I grew up in a lot of Black community spaces, so I know the importance of what it means when people can come together regularly, trust each other, and be in that type of space. Art is an incredibly valuable tool to do that. I fell in love with art as a tool, and I want to make that happen.