“What it means to struggle together”: Ashleigh Deosaran on The Living Image of Sound

In Spring 2023 The Block opened The Living Image of Sound: Notes on Jazz and Protest at Northwestern a concise exhibition exploring the intersections of visual art, music, and student-led social justice movements during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The exhibition features artwork and ephemera related to the trailblazing poet and musician Sun Ra and The Arkestra jazz ensemble, including a painting by the musician and visual artist Ayé Aton. The Arkestra’s practice is put into conversation with photographs of music venues across Chicago by Ted Williams, Mikki Ferrill, and Ronald L. Freeman, as well as images of and by Northwestern University students, reflecting a dynamic network of musicians, artists, listeners, and activists. The students—some of whom would eventually share a stage with Sun Ra himself—took up the mantle of artmaking and activism in response to local and global crises on and beyond their campuses from anti-Black racism to the Vietnam War.

We sat down with the exhibition curator Ashleigh Deosaran, 2022–23 Block Curatorial Graduate Fellow, to discuss her work and the “notes” that audiences will encounter in the exhibition.

Would you share a bit about the inspiration for this exhibition?  I know The Block recently acquired the photograph of Sun Ra by Ming Smith. Was that a starting point for your thinking?

Yes. That photograph is incredible and was part of early conversations.  I think an equal influence was the Pat Patrick Collection of Sun Ra Materials at the Northwestern Libraries, which became sort of the main engine of the exhibition. The photograph ended up being pulled into the gravity of that collection.  

The library collection shows a side to Sun Ra and the Arkestra that is less internationally famous, less explicitly afrofuturist. Emerging from the archive is a narrative about Sun Ra as an activist, one that thinks about the future in terms of the next generations. I think that ended up being really inspiring for the rest of the exhibition.  I was intrigued by the questions that emerged: What does it mean to prioritize performing on campuses? What does it mean to prioritize collaborating with visual artists and activists and thinking about collectivity and collaboration? How do we consider the other ways that Sun Ra engaged the concept of the future?  He not only championed what we now think of as afrofuturism–Space, Other Planets, and Elsewhere–but also thought actively about the future in the hands of young people.

Ming Smith (American), Sun Ra Space I, New York City, NY , 1978.  Gelatin silver print. The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Purchase funds donated by Julie and Lawrence Bernstein Family Art Acquisition Fund, 2019.28.1 

Fascinating, Perhaps it’s been less historicized that the Arkestra was deliberately modeling a form of activism for their audiences. Did you know about the collection at the library prior to undertaking this project?

I did not. And I have to say, there’s a lot there that is worth checking out.  I had heard about it, and the museum had been looking into the collection as we thought about parallels to the themes of the Dario Robleto exhibition, including cosmological perspectives and musical performance. The exhibition took on a life of its own once I dug into the ephemera itself.  I realized there’s a lot more to be said here about mobilizing young people and students in particular.  Sun Ra and his jazz ensemble really seem to prioritize students throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. Even during the 1970s when they were touring heavily and rising to fame, they were still coming back to Chicago, coming back to the US, and performing on campuses nationally.  This archive reflects how they’re thinking about staying with young audiences. We don’t necessarily think of this education, this modeling as their legacy. They’re modeling a possibility for what that intersection of art and activism that could look like.

Sun Arts Festival Flyer, New York, 1967, Pat Patrick Collection of Sun Ra Materials, Northwestern University Music Library

This insight reflects how you have combined ephemera and art to tell a story within the exhibition.

Yes, I’ve tried to put this archival ephemera into productive conversation with some of the other artistic content in the exhibition. I see the Arkestra as a model for multidisciplinary, intergenerational conversations that continue today. I’m interested in what it means to struggle together as a community, what it means to create together, this kind of call and response, improvisation, all of those things that we think about when we think about jazz. The spirit of jazz translates into Sun Ra’s extra-musical interests, which were everywhere. He’s interested in poetry, he’s interested in visual arts, in activism. So, I think this exhibition generally is trying to approach this story from those other sides.

Archival research seems to be crucial to this exhibition-making practice. What was it like partnering with the library to tell this story?

Amazingrace Press, Amazingrace Coffeehouse Poster,   Evanston, 1972, Screenprint, Records of Amazingrace Coffeehouse, Northwestern University Archives 

It’s hard for me to conceive of this exhibition in any form without that collaboration with the library, it just would not have been possible. The folks at the Northwestern libraries have been so generous and so helpful and so open to talking and sitting down with us. Archivists like Charla Wilson (Archivist for the Black Experience University Archives) have truly laid the groundwork when it comes to histories of protest at Northwestern. She’s been thinking for years about subjects such as the history of the Bursar’s Office Takeover, for example, or the history of Black House at Northwestern. The library thinks critically about how these acts of protest and social justice movements on campus are historicized and become the means by which we exist as we do in Evanston, on our campus today. Kevin Leonard (University Archivist) has been extremely helpful as an interlocutor in terms of helping me connect with Amazingace, a music venue that was open on campus in the late sixties, early seventies.

Amazingrace was a collective coming out of the 1970 anti-war protest that kind of really rocks Evanston. The collective opens a music venue in Scott Hall and there’s food and performances and it’s really one of the only spaces on campus where people can come together and listen together and have conversations, and it’s coming right out of protest.  One of the earliest introductions, I would say, of Amazingrace to the world was an exhibition that Kevin Leonard organized in 2011. 

I think it’s so interesting. In no way does this exhibition offer a complete history on subjects like the Bursar’s Office Takeover or Amazingrace.  You’ve shared the idea of the exhibition as interconnecting notes. If something within the exhibition sparks interest these amazing collaborators have laid the groundwork for historic deep dives that go far beyond what you’re able to display.

I agree. The hope is to give a moment of reflection and help people find something or help people begin to seek out something that they didn’t know was there.

 It’s not always what we understand to be curatorial practices to necessarily reach out to librarians and to showcase that public collaboration. Curators have maybe not necessarily made public how important these connections and archival networks are to our practice. No exhibition is just one person, it’s never the case. Credit has to go where credit is due.

I think, in a way, curatorial practice becomes this kind of behind-the-scenes version of what we see in the exhibition itself. Collaboration. Organizing. Collectivity.  The first conversations I had led to conversations with other people, and those led to relationships and meeting up and connections that were surprising.  That’s what happened in the sixties, as the Arkestra built up this network of artists and activists around them.  This exhibition feels like a similar mode.

I think if nothing else, I want people to know that they should run to special collections and just see what they find. I want people to just look up something they’re interested in, and then go to the collection and see it. Because it’s just so different to sit there and root around in boxes and smell paper, I hope if nothing else, people will do that.

In addition to archival research, you were able to speak with people who were direct participants in these artistic and social movements that you’re showcasing. Would you share a little bit about the first-person accounts that inform the show?

Yes.  This exhibition was created in conversation with former students at Northwestern, particularly those who were playing jazz or involved with jazz, and also involved with protest.  These alumni were very open about their experiences, open with their stories, very generous. And again, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Among the earliest conversations that we had were with the lenders of a painting by Ayé Aton, who was a musician in the Arkestra. The lenders are Clovis and Jean Semmes, and they’re an incredible couple. They’re both former Northwestern students and they live in Evanston still.  It was wonderful that we could come together and talk about not only this painting, but also Clovis’s music. He participated in a student band called The Life and Death Situation, and he was also involved in the social justice struggles that happened on campus. He also played alongside Ayé Aton who would eventually give them a blacklight painting that is central to the exhibition.

Ayé Aton (American, 1940–2017), Untitled, 1976, Mixed media painting on board, On loan from the collection of Clovis and Jean Semmes 

In conversation with Clovis and Jean, I learned a lot about the personal experience and the details and the risks that were involved in this activism. Elements that you can’t necessarily glean from the paperwork or the timeline or the date. Those conversations have been important in helping me understand all the moving parts at play and all of the influences. There were many real incidents of harm and micro and macro aggressions that were happening on campus. In the late sixties, there were very few Black students on campus and it was difficult to navigate that space

Adegoke (Steve) Colson (American, born 1949), The Life and Death Situation, ca. 1970–1973, Album Pages Digital Print, Steve Colson Papers, Northwestern University Archives 

One of the co-founders of The Life and Death Situation, Adegoke (Steve) Colson sat down with me as well. And he explained to me that he was the first Black man to major in music at Northwestern, he was one of only three students at the time when he entered.  He shared, “I would play jazz in the rehearsal rooms and they would come and they would make me stop.” From these first-person accounts you can come to understand the realities of how a cultural form is stigmatized.

I know these histories to be true in a very theoretical, very abstract sense, as somebody who grew up in an extremely different time, and who attends this campus as it exists so differently than it did back then. It’s only really in conversation with these former students that one gets a sense of just the daily aggressions and the daily setbacks.  Adegoke was also a major strategist of the Bursar’s Office Takeover and he’s the example that I think of when I think of the intersection between music and protest. He photographed The Life and Death Situation as they performed on stage on campus. You realize based on his story, how radical the public act of jazz performance could be. It was just a brave and audacious act.

It’s a true definition of a living history. It’s rich, connective throughline to the present moment is so clear in the show

Yes! I was also able to connect with the Amazingrace Collective – who actually still meet every Friday! They invited me to one of their zooms and I was honored just to chat with them. In particular, Darcie Sanders, who is just a joy, an incredible person, so generous and kind, and remembers a lot. We just kind of hung out and we talked about how important it is to capture detail and complexities you don’t see emphasized in typical histories.

For example, they shared the role that food played in the 1970 anti-war protest. Students were using their bodies, putting their bodies on the line, shutting down Sheridan Road. And other students were trying to grab food from on campus to bring to them to help them to stand their ground. The Amazingrace Collective became dedicated to prioritizing healthy food to feed their community and keep it going. It’s a very moving history and it’s one that is impossible to fully understand without speaking with those who were there.

All of these former students are incredible artists in their own and incredible thinkers. And the time that they’ve shared with me has been just fun and interesting and warming and inspiring in all the ways.

James Roberts (American, born 1950), Eva Jefferson Addresses Anti-War Rally,1970.  James S. Roberts Photographs, Northwestern University Archives 

The Living Image of Sound: Notes on Jazz and Protest at Northwestern (March 16-July 9, 2023) is curated by Ashleigh Deosaran, 2022–23 Block Curatorial Graduate Fellow, in consultation with Corinne Granof, Academic Curator. It is generously supported by the Illinois Arts Council Agency and The Graduate School, Northwestern University. Additional in-kind support is provided by Northwestern University Libraries.

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