Culturelines contributing editor Amani King, creative director of Avocados and Coconuts, spoke with Ari Robey-Lawrence, Eric Douglas Porter, Darice Jones, Chris McWayne, Adachi Pimentel and Khalil Anthony Peebles from the wood // work collective.
Steady growth and strength; roots to limbs and branches, may we leave our mark with each changing season.
When we consider a tree, we tend to think of its “above ground” presence – the trunk, the branches, the leaves. But so much of a tree lives underground, its roots drawing water and minerals in through mycelial networks, nourishing from below while photosynthesizing up above. From the root to the fruit, everything matters.
When we caught up with the music and art collective wood//work, trees served as an instructive metaphor. Themes of cultivation, growth, branching organic networks, individual specialness, group strength, transformation, and propagation all figure into their vision as a collective of black artists working to manifest and celebrate a kind of fantastic black otherness in the world at large. They’d be the first to say that their collective is still just a sapling, but its roots already run deep and its leaves are collecting sun rays in Oakland CA, Berlin, NYC, and New Orleans.
Consider a tree. The way it can grow and propagate from a single sapling to a networked forest. Consider wood//work.
How did wood // work come into being? How did you find each other?
“The personal connections and collaborative relationships that we have among one another pre-date the existence of the collective. A group of four of us were first acquainted in 2013 (some knew each other for at least a decade prior) in Berlin, and our friendships became solidified over that fall/winter season, and in the following years to come. We spent years building up kinship ties, jamming together, and engaging in deeper existential conversations around the artistic experience as Black folks, some as Black with intersectional identities. “wood//work” came to Ari in a moment of epiphany during a late night hangout with friends and chosen family in 2017. They still have the original drawing/chart that gave birth to the collective name in their archives, at home in Berlin.”
What is the wood // work ethos?
“Steady growth and strength; roots to limbs and branches, may we leave our mark with each changing season. It feels like music is the foundation, but what is the complete artistic scope of the collective? Is all art and creativity on the table?
“Music, or rhythm, is the foundation in our collective; as it is in the Universe. While we are rooted and connected through sound, and we express ourselves and support expression in all forms of art and creative existence. Currently this manifests in musical and live performance, and soon through our film festival and other forms of future creative-cultural interventions.”
What do the members of the collective each bring to the project individually?
“The beauty of wood//work is that every is encouraged to draw on their experience, abilities and interests and then find a way to channel that into serving the collective and its needs.”
When you bring all of the members together what emerges? What is the personality of the Collective?
“Unlike most popular culture, we love quirks. That’s what otherness is all about. When you combine individuals from various backgrounds, engaging in our Blackness together, what emerges is a joyful noise - an ever-expanding conversation on who we are.”
Why do human beings make music and art?
“We create because we’re alive. Everything alive creates and expresses in some way. We also have a need to see ourselves, and to offer our visions to others for examination. Music and art allow connection with ourselves and with others that operate in the realms of rhythm, movement, symbol, and metaphor. These realms lend to connection in ways that are sometimes bound up and stifled by the judgement or stiffness of linear thought. All forms of art invite us out of our minds and into our bodies, which is a powerful realignment.”
What makes Black music / Black genres / Black art different from other music/art?
“This is an interesting question. Perhaps there is no such thing as Black music because of Black involvement in the creation of all forms of modern music. Blackness is the root of all things. Maybe all music is Black music? All art is Black art. Personal reflection and education around that notion is important.”
Can you point to others who came before you who embody fantastic Black otherness and inspire you deeply?
“Prince. Lorraine Hansberry. Sun Ra. James Baldwin. Gladys Bentley. Octavia Butler. Betty Davis. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Nikki Giovanni. Nina Simone. Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Just to name a few. If you know of these individuals, or are familiar with their work and their legacies, you may recognize how each of them pushed back against the walls that attempt to constrict Blackness into a monolithic and eternally disenfranchised state of being.”
What does “representation” mean to you?
“It means everyone who is here is heard. Existence without borders.”
What does mentorship look like in the wood // work frame?
“Mentorship manifests in a range of ways. We all have things to teach each other. We all have things to learn from one another. From the creative, to the personal, to the political. Experience (rather than age) is a big factor.”
Can great art exist without struggle? Can it be effortless?
“Nothing exists without struggle. The real question is: where does struggle meet you? Effortlessness is a privilege. It is also simultaneously part of the beauty of the universe. Planets orbit, and ocean tides sway. Such feats seem effortless to us, but require great amounts of force and friction to achieve. Art requires great amounts of emotional energy and openness to manifest. Likewise, it requires great skill and practice to be able to translate this energy. But the results always feel effortless.”
Planets orbit, and ocean tides sway. Such feats seem effortless to us, but require great amounts of force and friction to achieve. Art requires great amounts of emotional energy and openness to manifest.
How do you bring others into the fold, create or connect with the community, and sow the seeds?
“The art we create, and the platforms we build, serve as beacons to folks far and wide. They inspire and bolster strength. Our initial wood//work projects helped establish a fanbase and ultimately attracted new members. We are now working toward the launch of the Bijou Film Festival, which we imagine will have a similar but greater effect.”
If I stumbled into a live wood // work event knowing nothing about the collective, what would it feel like? What unique quality or memory might I take away from the experience?
“How it feels depends on how you show up. For those who find their home in multi-layered Black creative expressions, it will feel like home. Others may feel more like special visitors being granted temporary access to the sacred space of another culture.”
How do you keep the fruit from the tree you are growing in the community? How can your efforts continue to be built upon instead of being exploited from the outside?
“We are a community-based, community-oriented creative platform. Exploitation is a possible (read: likely) outcome of interactions with non-community-based, community-oriented entities. Our efforts are continually being built upon as long as our aim remains such. Preventing exploitation from the outside is of no consequence when our eyes are focused inward.
We are conscious of our existence in the face of a hyper-capitalist reality, where everything, but now most particularly race and marginal identity, are pervasively commodified. We realize that this is part of the reason why certain external entities may be attracted to our collective and its work.
It is our choices that determine the ethics and integrity of our partnerships and collaborations, and ultimately determine our ability to prevent external exploitation. In a hyper-capitalist reality, these choices are never easy to make, but are made nonetheless.”
What does your most utopian dream for the future of Black artists look like?
“Our utopian dreams for Black artists of the future are no different than those of the Black artists and cultural workers who came before us, exist with us, and will continue to live on after us. Equity. Stability. Intentionality. Groundedness. Accessibility. Protection, in the form of structure. Collective Power.”