Ayo Janeen Jackson

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ayo Janeen Jackson enjoyed an enviable dance career after earning her BFA at UNCSA. She danced with two of the world’s most renowned contemporary companies — Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and Ballet Preljocaj — before joining the company of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Yearning to learn more ways to express herself, though, she shifted her career path. She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a Master’s in Interdisciplinary Arts, and today she remains a performing artist firmly rooted in her body with the difference that she has added several skills to her artistic repertoire, including filmmaking and font design.

Along with recent “Art Restart” guest Gregg Mozgala, Ayo received a 2022 Artpreneur Alumni of the Year Award from UNCSA. The award recognizes not only Ayo’s artistic experimentations but also a new skin-care business she has created that is inspired by her artistic research.

In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Ayo describes why and how she set out to broaden her artistic horizons and explains the historic and artistic ethic behind her new business venture.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo: So that we can get to know your work, I wonder if you could describe a project that you’re currently creating.

Ayo: Certainly. There are several projects that I’m working on right now, but the one that I’ll talk about is my film, “TEAR SUTURE SCAB.” The extended title is “Within Every Tear, There’s a Suture, Every Scar — a Scab.” For me, that means that yes, healing can come about, but I will never forget. Scabs will form, and I will have those on my body. What I realized growing up, getting in accidents, was that my skin would leave melanated marks. They would become darker, and they would stay there, so I would remember those incidents, like if I burned myself on the stove. So that title really resonated with me. 

It is a short artistic film. It’s inspired by these tapestries that are located in the Met Cloisters in New York City that feature a unicorn who has a battle with these noblemen and hunters. Throughout the series of tapestries, the unicorn is hunted down, killed and brought to the castle. But in the last tapestry we see the unicorn surprisingly resurrected and sitting in this shortened, fenced-in area, so [laughing] if the unicorn stood up, it would be able to get out. I saw it as more of a protective fenced-in area rather than a caged-in area.

The unicorn has gone through all of these trials and tribulations, and I wanted to parallel this myth to the experiences of Africans within the diaspora.

I immediately started paralleling these to the historical atrocities faced by Black Americans. The unicorn has gone through all of these trials and tribulations, and I wanted to parallel this myth to the experiences of Africans within the diaspora. My primary focus is on African Americans and the experience of Black Americans. One characteristic of the entire diaspora is this idea of resilience and how we have continued throughout history to not just survive but also thrive. It’s always a miracle to me.

Some associate this white, innocent unicorn to Jesus Christ and how he was resurrected and how the unicorn actually has everlasting life. I thought, “Wow, what if I could just think about that, instead of these stories ending up left in these death spaces, these negative spaces?” I wanted to bring these stories, bring these people back.

Pier Carlo: Is this your first film?

Ayo: Yes. I was making objects at the time. Right at the beginning of 2020, I was going to have an exhibition in Connecticut. I was in talks with my producers every day. Then we started getting news about this disease coming, and then I found myself alone in my house, not able to have my exhibition. But I literally flipped it, and I said, “Well, I’m going to take everything that I’ve been making and create a short film.” 

I had no clue, not a clue, but I had resilience, and I had a lot of people who wanted to create something artistic during this time. So I was very lucky.

Pier Carlo: I was able to see the teaser trailer, which I’ll include the link in the show notes of this episode. What you’ve described about it is very, for lack of a better word, heavy, but the trailer looks like it’s going to be very fantastical and —

Ayo: Humorous.

Pier Carlo: Yes, definitely. Am I right?

Ayo: That is very right. I think that is a trait of mine, to use humor to express myself and also to maybe deal with painful situations. I think I found that, growing up, we would laugh not at specific instances per se but about the situation of Black America, not laughing because it was necessarily funny but laughing because of the ridiculousness of the situation.

It’s a survival technique, I believe, for me — I’ll speak for myself — because sometimes you can’t face painful experiences head-on. You kind of have to remove yourself in a way. I see today online on some threads like Black Twitter, it is hilarious! They’re taking ideas of poverty, flipping it, making it humorous and saying, “Well, that’s how we survived.” That’s resilience. And so you’re laughing. You want to cry, but you’re laughing through it. That’s how I am. 

I get really nostalgic sometimes because I listen to stories that my grandparents and parents have told, and I actually place myself in those times and in those memories, but I’m dealing with them in this body in 2022. The way I negotiate that space is through humor. It makes things glide a little bit easier for me.

Pier Carlo: It makes me think of your artistic statement, which includes the phrase, “healing the fantastic Black body.” Of course, I think, humor is crucial to any kind of healing.

Ayo: Yes. Yes, it is.

Pier Carlo: Can you talk about that, healing the fantastic Black body? How did you arrive at that mission statement and what does it mean to you?

Ayo: Yes. I read this book by Dr. Joy DeGruy, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” in which she talked about healing the severed Black psyche and how none of these things that have happened historically are separate from where we are today. They ride and they are transmitted through our DNA. They’re transmitted not just through stories. If a mother cow experiences fear, the baby will also experience that same jolt at that same sensation.

Pier Carlo: Right. I think the science of epigenetics confirms that.

I wanted to say, ‘It’s a fantastical space that we’re already coming from. That’s the basis; there’s no arguing about it. It just needs a little bit of healing. It needs to re-look at itself and see itself as a fantastical space or place.’

Ayo: Exactly. So the fantastic Black body for me was a starting place, a place of honor, and the metaphorical body that I’m speaking of is the totality of the shared experience. At one time it had been and sometimes still is objectified and treated quite poorly. I wanted to transform the way we looked at it. I wanted to say, “It’s a fantastical space that we’re already coming from. That’s the basis; there’s no arguing about it. It just needs a little bit of healing. It needs to re-look at itself and see itself as a fantastical space or place.”

Pier Carlo: Most of your artistic career was spent in dance. At what point did you decide to get an advanced degree in interdisciplinary arts? What occasioned that decision?  

Ayo: I think I had just come to a spot, a place in my career and in my way of thinking about life, that dance just wasn’t serving anymore. 

Pier Carlo: Serving you? Your audience? Your mission?

Ayo: Serving me as I became more articulate in my mission. I felt like I had danced in companies, I felt like I’d been on Broadway in “Spiderman,” and I just wanted to have more ownership and authorship of my creations. I also found myself not being able to articulate the way that I was feeling about issues like race and gender and intersectionality simply through dance. The only tool I had was my body, and I needed to pull myself out of that. In order to speak about it, I couldn’t be in it anymore. I needed to be in a more poetic space. I didn’t know how to say that at the time, but I knew that I was becoming stagnant. 

I spoke with a couple of people who were in the visual-art field. One, my dear friend Wangechi Mutu, said, “You should go back to school. There are these interdisciplinary-art programs. You should apply to Pratt here in the city.” There was another friend who had gone to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and for some reason I just really anchored in the idea of this school. I remember applying, and I would go around — I was doing a dance performance at the time — I had it on my computer, and I went around the whole backstage and said to everybody, “I’m going to go to school here. I’m going to school here.” And everybody said, “Oh, but Chicago is so cold.” And I said, “I don’t care. I’m going there.” 

And funnily enough, I ended up going to a summer program. They had an interdisciplinary summer program that took place over three summers. It was perfect because it really reached out to people who were already artists in their field, thriving artists. We all came from different backgrounds, different disciplines, some sculptors, some painters. I was one of two performance artists in the program, but I felt like I could come in there with the skills that I had and still be able to be a part of the conversation.

Pier Carlo: Was there anything particular about your dance training that was really useful in your education there?

Ayo: I would have to say discipline. Discipline, understanding and being able to take on a workload. I went to UNCSA for high school, and I remember the first day my dad looked at me, and he said, “Are you going to be able to handle this?” [She laughs.] He’s like, “This is going to be a lot of work. There are a lot of classes.” And I said, “Yeah, I got it.” And I did. 

That’s the same kind of rigorous practice that I had at SAIC, but it was different. It was a lot of reading, and then we would have to write maybe a page or two, so I got used to writing and understanding works. And then we would have to read each other’s papers and then respond back to those. The transmission of thought was at a very high level. And I appreciate that.

Pier Carlo: Was there anything you kind of had to unlearn from your dance training?

Ayo: That’s an interesting question. No, I feel like I brought myself completely to the table. 

You know what? I feel like the shame of thinking that, “Oh, you know, I’m in this visual art-program. Everyone else’s discipline is better than mine.” I had to unlearn that sense of how I viewed myself as simply a dancer. And the idea of dance. Because in reality we are paid so very little, and so I associated that with my value. 

Pier Carlo: You mean in comparison to the base artistic disciplines of your fellow students?

In dance, if someone came in and was critiquing me, I’d have to take that home, whereas now I could create a silhouette of myself, leave it there, and then it would become not just my body and my lived experience that they’re critiquing.

Ayo: Yeah. I didn’t understand even how to budget, what it would take to buy materials. Like I said, the only thing I had was my body as my tool, but now here I am budgeting and buying materials. Now I have stepped outside of myself, my comfort zone, and I want to leave something on the surface that I can see and I can now critique. In dance, if someone came in and was critiquing me, I’d have to take that home, whereas now I could create a silhouette of myself, leave it there, and then it would become not just my body and my lived experience that they’re critiquing. That is a semblance of myself. That is a replica of me. I can leave that in the studio. And so that’s kind of what I had to unlearn. 

What I found was that everybody really appreciated dance because they were always in their studios alone, not being able to interact. I had been in companies with fellow dancers, and they honored that.

Pier Carlo: Right. You had the experience of dealing with a company, with a team of other artists, that a lot of studio artists don’t have.

Ayo: Yes. Then I also changed my expectations on what I deserve and what I’m now bringing to the table and how to actually reevaluate myself and my dance training. People really were, I don’t want to say envious, but they definitely understood that what I was bringing to the table was highly valuable.

Pier Carlo: Could you talk about the project toward which you plan to use some of your Artpreneur Awards funds? 

Ayo: Yes, another project that I’m working on is Don’t Be Ashy, body butter for the soul. [She laughs.]

Pier Carlo: [Laughing] That’s a great name! Talk about how you came up with the product and its name.

Ayo: I started this project while I was in school, researching Black female performers who were a little less known than people like Josephine Baker. As a Black performance artist, I wanted to know who paved the way before me. I found different artists, like Aida Overton Walker, who were these women who “lived in the margins of history.” They were doing things that were unfathomable to both Black men and women and white women at the time, touring around the world, touring around the country, performing in front of the Queen of England. They were just making magical, major moves, but they weren’t being talked about. 

That’s what Don’t Be Ashy is to me. It’s to be resilient and resplendent no matter what, to show up and to shine in the face of misogyny, in the face of racism, just like, “I’m going to look good!” And it comes from a euphemism in African American language: “Just don’t be ashy.” It’s a way of talking about like, don’t be ashy with your skin, don’t be ashy with your attitude.

Pier Carlo: So you’re creating a business.

Ayo: Yes, I’ve created a business. I took this idea of what these women represented for me, and I put it in this body butter.

I was making it for Christmas. I didn’t have much money at the time because I was in school, and I started making it for my family. I was making it with my friend in her kitchen, and she was like, “You could do this as a business.” And I said, “Well, if I did, I’d call it Don’t Be Ashy.” Because I felt like everything was just crunchy in my life at the time. Everything seemed to be going wrong, and I was like: “Ayo, just stay the course. Just keep going and try to show up with a modicum of decency. Come on, you can do it. Show up like your great-grandmother; show up like your mother; show up like your aunts; show up like the Black women in your life that you know have gone through a lot more than what you’re going through right now, and they always looked nice, smelled nice and said sweet, nice things.”

Now I’m not always saying sweet, nice things, but I do try to show up and look a certain way because like I said, you will always see the fantastical Black body. I will always try to represent that because Black people are more than the stereotypes that have been presented over the course of history.

Pier Carlo: Did you ever think you would go into business?

Ayo: Never! I didn’t even understand it. I love making this so much. I actually make it in my house, and all of the pictures for the different labels are based off of these pinup girls.

Pier Carlo: I was going to ask you about the graphics because, given your background, I’m sure they weren’t picked haphazardly.

Ayo: No, they were representative of Black pinup girls circa 1940s, during World War II. Pinup girls were, I find, a source of healing. They were sent to men who were away at war as a sort of, “Here’s something to keep your hearts warm at night. Here’s a little joy, a burst of joy in your life, a little forget-me-not. Remember that life is sweet. There’s a pretty girl who you can imagine going home to.” I wanted to have that represent Don’t Be Ashy.

Pier Carlo: It sounds like you’re marketing it to both men and women then.

Ayo: Yes, I have a foot cream; I also have a hair-and-beard cream; and I’m marketing it across all demographics, young and old. I find that, especially when I’m able to do markets, old Black women come up to me and they are dying laughing because they automatically understand what I’m talking about. I don’t want to say it’s a cry, but it is actually a little bit of a, “Hey, come on, get up from there.”

Saying, ‘Don’t be ashy,’ is proclaiming, ‘Hey, you get up from that stereotype of what people think we are. Come on, get up, dust yourself off, start looking pretty.’ That is the fantastical Black body that I’m talking about right now. You are fantastical.

Saying, “Don’t be ashy,” is proclaiming, “Hey, you get up from that stereotype of what people think we are. Come on, get up, dust yourself off, start looking pretty.” That is the fantastical Black body that I’m talking about right now. You are fantastical. You are not that stereotype of being less than, of being poor, of being poverty-stricken, of being someone who can’t help themselves, of being someone who is violent. Anything that is a negative association with Black people, you are not those things. And don’t be ashy!

August 01, 2022