Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Empathy, Animism & Hexing the Patriarchy: A Conversation with Indira Allegra

I sauntered down to my dorm kitchen at 10 AM to interview Indira Allegra. A multidisciplinary Bay Area artist, Allegra uses video, performance and “text/ile” work to activate tension as a creative material. Allegra and I had followed each other on social media after a previous conversation in my English class. For this Skype interview, she greeted me wearing red lipstick, a hat reading “FANCY” and a T-shirt inscribed with “hex the patriarchy.” After some technical difficulties, we began our talk.

Nathan: Are there any upcoming projects you wanted to talk about?

Indira: One of the things about working as an artist is that you have to plan two, three years in advance so I'm thinking about/working on shows through 2019. Right now I have a works up at Dimensions Variable in Miami for their "Thread of Execution" exhibition, Weinberg/Newton Gallery in Chicago for “Take Care”, the Center for Craft Creativity and Design in Asheville for “Crafted Strangers” as well North Seattle College Art Gallery in Seattle for “Contemporary Threads”. And then I have a solo show BODYWARP at The Alice Gallery in Seattle opening January 6th. BODYWARP explores weaving as performance requiring a receptivity to tensions in political and emotional spaces. BODYWARP marks the launch of a multi-year exploration for me - of looms as frames through which the weaver becomes the warp and is held under tension. It is way I can perform a series of site-specific interventions with my body. It's about the choreography between maker, tool and the narrative of a place. It’s very physical work. The exhibition will include a photo series, video, sculpture and live performance. If you are reading this from the PNW, I'll be doing talks second week of January at North Seattle College, Seattle University and University of Washington, Bothell so come join me!

That sounds really exciting! In one of your recent Instagram posts, you discuss a vertical dance experience in relation to being an air sign and as an “emotional need” to “explore and perform off the ground.” I can see astrology and occult practices as other “traditional forms of knowledge” that can ultimately increase our worldly literacy. What is your relationship to astrology in general and what are other ways this factors into your work?

Well, today is all about hexing patriarchy (shows me her shirt) (both laugh). Shout out to InĂ©s Ixierda @ines_ixierda! So this question is right on time...So many of my peers are really into knowing basic stuff around charts and herbal medicine. It’s even become a form of flagging within my own queer community like “Oh what’s your rising? Oh what’s your moon?” (laughs) Interest in those areas connects me to something so much larger and older than - I don’t know how else to say it - than the patriarchal bullshit that so many of us are constantly navigating. As someone who has training with textiles and weaving, it definitely appeals to the part of my brain that’s interested in systems and identifying patterns - in cloth and in people.

And, to be honest I believe in all that stuff. When I have a cold or something, or I’m feeling super crampy, I’ll probably reach for some teas first. And it’s not like I don't use Western medicine too, but these forms of knowledge [herbal, astrological, energetic] are often seen as “lesser than” or are feminized in some way. I think it’s because they’re democratic. Like actually democratic. If everyone digs deep enough, they'll find that someone in their family had a relationship to plant medicine. You don't have to be an Indigenous person from this particular land to have that relationship; your ancestors could be from Europe and there’s rich plant traditions there also. This is significant in the sense that when a white person does the research on their background to learn more about their plant traditions - it actually forces them to come to terms with themselves as a racialized individual just like their non-white counterparts. You know, I’m racialized all day long, as if I’m the only one with racial identities... and I want everyone to be racialized. I’m here for equal-opportunity racialization (both laugh).

Yeah, I’m like a card-carrying witch, so I’m into a lot of that too. Just really grounding yourself in that pre-patriarchal spirituality.

I was about to go on residency, and I make little altars everywhere I travel to. I was talking to a friend and she was like “Girl, what do you travel with?” and I was like “Girl, you gotta get whatever flower essences you need to stay focused, whatever you need for protection, and this is what I use...” It’s really powerful to create rituals for oneself. It’s really an act of self-determination for me get up in the morning and say, “Hmmm, this is how I’m feeling in my body. This is what I think I need. I’m going to do something as best as I can to meet that need.” And that need actually matters. It means something.

Sometimes I don’t feel well when I walk into a space because it feels fucking haunted... As an Indigenous person, I’m super sensitive to all that stuff. I was at a residency recently where I was just like “Whoaaa, the energy ain’t totally right.” The spirit there wasn't malicious, but definitely wanted attention. So it was things like the tea kettle going on by itself at night, or water pouring out the pipes from the bottom of the sink, or the espresso machine suddenly leaking cold water all over the floor. Just really random stuff.  I just had to think about the architecture of the house. So there’s a center staircase, and then servant’s quarters in the basement. So I said, “Ok Spirit, you don’t have to do anything else to make me know that you’re here. I’m sorry that when you were alive, people wanted you to be invisible. They wanted you to serve food, to probably do laundry, and to quietly live in that interior core without ever being seen. I did not do that to you, but I’m sorry that happened to you. And trust that we can live together. I will be a good roommate to you.” Afterward things were chill! For me, this is an example of how Indigeneity and awareness of femme labor converge where I’m talking to spirits at residency so I can get sleep at night. That’s all I’m gonna say about that (both laugh).

I’ve noticed your inclusion of “two-spirit” in the LGBTQ+ acronym. I was wondering about your personal relationship to that term and how a queer Indigenous experience can be more centralized in the contemporary art world?

That’s a great question. So two-spirit is really an umbrella term. I’m a Cherokee descendant, and we have our own specific ways of naming ourselves in relationship to gender and sexuality. But queerness wasn’t necessarily shared with me through other tribal members growing up. It wasn't until I became an adult that I started meeting other queer and trans* Native folks and we began to share information. Organizations like BAAITS [the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Association] act as baskets where folks can come together and share their information and research.  So in terms of centralizing Two-Spirit knowledge in the art world, what comes to mind are my views on animacy, consent and agreement-making. When I’m working on a piece, it’s not just me making the cloth; the cotton is also an animate being that I’m in dialogue with. Same with the wooden body of the loom. These things have their own energy, their own voices; I work within the boundaries they set for me. I’m aware of the energy in a space if I’m doing a performance, particularly if I’m calling an ancestor into the room. Maybe I’ll just say a simple prayer or an offering of gratitude.

Folks will often be like “Oh Indira, can you make things that you know, look more Native?” That’s a really problematic thing to say; what folks fail to realize is that it’s not how the objects look, it is the methodology that goes into making them. Say you’re looking for beads because they signify “Nativeness” to you. Anyone can bead something, that’s not hard to do; it’s how you handle those materials. Are you praying while you’re working? Do you believe there are other ancestors or energies at work? Are you beading during a certain time a year? Is there a fucking eclipse around the corner? Just because the methodology may not be visible doesn't mean it isn’t real and really present in the work.

In your 2015 interview with New Asterisk Magazine, you discuss your Revolve video piece complicating the public and private spheres by “abdicating something that society says I should keep private.” Violence against a marginalized body is made private or invisible because it’s written into the daily reality of marginalization. When people take videos of police violence, that kind of flips the script to make an invisible violence visible. Since the dominant culture maintains the terms of visibility, it’s kind of like talking back to power by speaking its own language.

For me, there’s always a front and a back-side of the cloth. So a lot of my work is about bringing that back-side to the fore.  For a commission for Wattis Institute this Spring, I did a performance called What do Tumors Know That we Forget When They’re Pulled from the Body? The curator had asked me to be present for an opening; I told them “Oh I’m actually getting a tumor removed during that time. I don’t know if I’ll be physically well enough to come to San Francisco, but I would like to make a work anyway.” So rather than doing something requiring a lot of able-bodied posturing, I decided to make a work about my vulnerable, recovering body.

The legibility of Black and Indigenous pain is something that the dominant culture really struggles with in this country. Like for me to see images of people who look like me gunned down on YouTube’s something deeper than trauma. Other people can watch that and say “Wow, I never knew police violence was this bad.” And of course I’ve always known. Media shows Black bodies being vulnerable only seconds before being shot, but otherwise...not really. And even that vulnerability is contested, because reporters or police departments can ask “Oh, but did they have a hidden weapon somewhere?” Even if the victim is lying on the ground pleading for their life...Trauma doesn’t even feel like a large enough word at this point to describe how that impacts me (tearing up).  This is part of my practice too...feeling ok crying when I need to cry, and not thinking that it’s bad in any way. It’s an emotion and it’s happening, so I don’t want you to worry. I’m actually consciously trying to be more in my feelings.

Ok yeah I’ve also been trying to do that exact same thing!

Patriarchy tells us crying is not ok but I’m like, “This is what my body needs right now!” Anyway, back to the work at the Wattis, I wanted to make a work about being vulnerable and making that visible without inflicting any kind of trauma on myself or having to perform some kind of endurance. I Skyped into the gallery & performed a gentle choreography from my bed, with my bedtime textiles as my co-conspirators, speaking directly to my audience.

And I’ll say another thing - sometimes I struggle with this idea of visibility. Just because something is being made visible doesn't necessarily mean that people will care more about it. And that sounds so bad, but with the videos of these serial police executions, or even folks being abused while protesting, it doesn't always bring about the change we would anticipate. So I want to be careful around saying that just because something is made visible means that x, y, or z will change for the better, that justice will happen…

I totally get that because the dominant culture maintains the terms of visibility. I was thinking about ways to insurgently engage with those same terms, but anything would still be contending with that power boundary. It’s playing into visibility as an arbitrary marker of importance or awareness, but you’re right is that violence is so much more ingrained for those affected groups. You’ve also mentioned different forms of knowledge like the weaving process, which is this bodily exchange rather than our societally-prioritized ocular knowledge.

Yeah, it relates to when we were talking about being connected to forms of knowledge that are bigger than us as individuals. I think visibility is one part of the solution-making, but people really have to think beyond their own individual experiences to say “Oh, something that I don’t see or experience on a daily basis could be real.” You could have all the visibility in the world, but if there isn’t any empathy to receive your experience, things don’t actually shift culturally. We are having an empathy crisis as humans. It is a public health issue.

I feel like many queer, trans and gender-nonconforming folks are used to thinking outside of our own experiences. Because we are marginalized, we’re so used to thinking about how we’re perceived on any given day and code switching all the time. If you’re not living as a marginalized person, you really don’t have to worry about how your perception or language might impact your mobility or safety because there are fewer things compromising the integrity of your world.

I think about that all the time. Like in class I talk about a lot different things especially if I’m really into the material. But I always have this fear that everyone hates me because I’m just this loud femme person who won’t stop talking. Then I think about when very privileged people are talking in the same situations, they don’t have to assess that curated communicative performance because their voices are already accounted for and accommodated. I just feel like I have be such a tightly-organized presence, but some of these other people are taken for granted.

I love how you say that actually, how you have to be a “tightly organized presence.” That's just such an accurate way of describing it...that’s actually very beautiful. Thank you.

Oh thank you! Also thinking about visibility, I’m interested in the weird way that being a femme gets translated across bodies. As a male-bodied person, being a femme makes my queerness hyper-visible. I was wondering about your different bodily experience, but still within that same femme bracket?

That’s a good question, thanks for asking actually. It’s so interesting, I never get asked about femmeness in that way. So basically there was a time, I almost wanna say (singsong voice) “Once upon a time, when I was a baby queer…”,  I didn’t actually feel confident about making a claim to femme. And that feels really weird to say now. But I grew up in Portland Oregon, and if you've ever seen Portlandia, it really is that strange...I almost can’t even watch it, I’m like “It’s too real! It’s too real!” (Nathan laughs). It’s a very, very, very hyper-white place.

I don’t know how else to put this - I saw how my white girlfriends/lovers were treated versus how I was treated as a woman – people would literally approach them like, “Oh you don’t feel good, poor thing, what can I do for you?” And when I wasn’t feeling well, when I was in pain, people were like, “Oh you’re so strong, you'll be fine.” I associated femmeness with this thin, white femininity that people would essentially want to protect and nurture. My body has been many different shapes and sizes over the course of my life; definitely during times where I was curvier/thicker/fat, I was acutely aware of the way in which my body was not perceived by others of as being one that was worthy of care, gentleness or protection.  In fact, it was assumed that I would perform as a kind of emotional ‘mammy’ to others. I don’t even know if my pain was real to other people during that time. I felt like I had to change my body, to make myself smaller, to be read as worthy of care and as femme. And that set me on a very painful and difficult path for years.

I’m really very grateful for all of the work that has been done around body positivity through social media, around folks of many different shapes and sizes being able to claim femme. In the queer community folks are talking more about how their bodies need care, people are demanding that we be cared for. Now I understand that I have and have always had a right to claim femme as an identity. I have a beautiful, caring and nurturing support system. Now that I do so much work with my body, my own work is a way for me to be constantly defining myself by myself.

In the time succeeding our talk, Allegra’s notions of self-definition settled with me. I began to more acutely assess my relationship to self-care, influenced by her assertion of responding to bodily needs. As marginalized people or even just people with bodies, our pain does matter; sometimes we need reminders to treat ourselves gently.

Works Cited

Allegra, Indira. “Performance>Commissions.” Indira Allegra, 2017,

Allegra, Indira, and Nicole Archer. “Indira Allegra: Aufenthaltsgestattung - Berlin: In(Flux) with
Black Futures Month.” Berlin: (In)flux. San Francisco, San francisco Art Institute,

Hotchkiss, Sarah. “Women to Watch: Indira Allegra.” KQED Arts, 28 July 2017,

Santos, Dorothy. “Sousveillance: What does it mean to defy social norms for artistic expression.”
The New Asterisk, Apr. 2015,

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