Rearrange: Torkwase Dyson and Black Feminist Breathing

Torkwase Dyson, "Presence, Takes Courage for a Body to Get Down There," 2020. Courtesy of the artist, and the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Spending time in a museum after it closes to the public holds a certain wonder. There is something invigorating about turning up where you know you are not usually “supposed” to be.

As scholar and somatic practitioner Aimee Cox says: “We have to train ourselves to be disobedient. I am exhausted by obedience—it has not served us.” Conscious disobedience has a way of enlivening the senses and hurtling our spirits back towards their true nature.

On Monday November 15th, 2021, I gathered a group of seven Black women at the Art Institute of Chicago to meditate with Torkwase Dyson’s painting Presence, Takes Courage for a Body to Get Down There (2020), which had been recently acquired by the museum through the Society for Contemporary Art. As we meandered through the towering galleries, we put our “inside voices” in our back pockets, dropped our tendency to monitor ourselves so closely (which is generally demanded in formal art spaces like this), and settled into our bodies anew. We unrolled our yoga mats, kicked off our shoes, gazed tenderly at one another, and marveled at the gloriousness of the scene that we had just stepped into.

The convening was transgressive from the outset. We were seven Black women in a museum, whose fidelity has historically been predicated on our continued absence. We were seven Black women in a museum meditating. We were seven Black women in a museum meditating after hours. Our presence, paired with its intent, was errant in part because we have never been welcome here, because we have certainly never been welcome to occupy a gallery for an extended period to focus on our collective healing and spiritual evolution, because we have certainly never been invited to do so without strict supervision or unwelcome spectatorship.

As an arts worker, I am deeply invested in illuminating the myriad ways Black women contribute to our field, and how these contributions redefine how we may engage artworks in institutional contexts, as well as how we regard the lives we lead and the work we do. I felt it urgent to facilitate a program that drew attention to the fortitude of Presence, Takes Courage for a Body to Get Down There which, in Dyson’s words, is an intuitive means of “building a way to see all the ancestors and the future.” Uniquely, this particular painting opens out onto a coalescence of questions derived from the disciplines of Black aesthetics, art history, Black feminist theory, and spiritual study, thereby inviting new ways of seeing and understanding the history from which we come and the present into which we enact our lives, our desires, and our work.

Presence, Takes Courage for a Body to Get Down There is composed of a looming, oceanic background, atop which geometric forms, including triangles, squares, and curved lines, float—as if there is nothing tethering them to the landscape below. The painting as a whole appears to be teetering on an invisible axis, as if it will unfurl at any moment. The internal logic that governs Dyson’s composition calls to mind philosopher Édouard Glissant’s “tremblement”:

Tremblement is thinking in which we can lose time, lose time searching, in which we can wander and in which we can counter all the systems of terror, domination, and imperialism with the poetics of trembling—it allows us to be in real contact with the world and with the peoples of the world.

Gazing up at the painting, then, invites a challenge to answer to its title, to “get down there,” to reach the mode of relation Glissant describes, one in which we give ourselves over to our most ancient modes of being, modes where time is no longer a rigid thing but an indeterminate space into which we may cast our longings for a changed world.

More broadly speaking, Dyson’s practice is invested in the development of “more livable geographies.” In response to the ongoing peril of environmental racism, she constructs her paintings through a mode of “Black compositional thought,” which she describes as a process of “developing a mindful awareness of lines and shapes that recognize the abilities of Black bodies to expressively inhabit and negotiate constructions of space and materiality in real time.” This method allows her to infuse her paintings with a geometric language that excavates the energetic residue of specific instances of Black spatial genius, also known as radical gestures of self-emancipation, or “the profound spatial strategies of fugitivity.”

For instance, Dyson has described how coming face-to-face with the triangular forms in Presence, Takes Courage for a Body to Get Down There puts us directly in touch with the pioneering Harriet Jacobs, who hid in a triangular crawlspace for seven years in order to secure her freedom. The square-shaped form references Henry Box Brown, who constructed a wooden structure, climbed inside and successfully shipped himself across the Mason-Dixon line. The curved lines that draw the eye in a circular fashion across the painting reference the hull of the ship that Anthony Burns used to flee from Richmond, VA to Boston, MA in 1854. Each of these forms reference people who made a way out of no way and, by extension, empower spectators to, as informed by the past, recognize our capacity to make similar moves in the contemporary moment. To this end, one meditation participant observed that the metallic curved lines felt like they constructed a sort of portal or escape route from the precarity of our everyday lives. Another mentioned how the longer she gazed at the work, the more the shapes began to unfold into a new arrangement, thereby illuminating the un-fixed, un-kept nature of Dyson’s work, and again drawing back to Glissant’s notion of “tremblement.”

As a forever-student of Black feminist thought, I know that the project of liberation is not only a cerebral, theoretical move, but one that must also involve the somatic, sensory, and spiritual dimensions of our respective and collective beings. It bears noting, also, that traditional arts education rarely centers embodied dimensions of learning. While colonial epistemologies consider the act of study to be something that occurs in solitude and in the thinking mind, I draw from Fred Moten’s notion of study as “what you do with other people. . . . held under the name of speculative practice.” With this in mind, I was invested in exploring what it might feel like to pull the liberatory ethic of Dyson’s work into our bodies. I wanted a framework, or a speculative practice, that could bring a group of us into communion with the painting, so I turned to Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s notion of Black feminist breathing.

I first learned of Black feminist breathing through an episode of Adrienne Maree and Autumn Brown’s podcast, How to Survive The End of the World, during which they interviewed Gumbs. I listened to the trio reflect on the profound impact that the practice has had on them, how it allowed them to collapse time and access wisdom that exceeded the boundaries of their individual lives. It is no coincidence that I came across this particular episode while I walked to the museum to spend some time with Dyson’s painting, four months before our after-hours gathering. While Gumbs has traditionally practiced this mode of breathing in a literary context, wherein she incants the words of the Combahee River Collective (“Black women are inherently valuable”) or Harriet Tubman (“my people are free”), among others, I was curious about the possibility of engaging it in the context of the visual arts to further activate Dyson’s painting.

Black feminist breathing takes seriously the alinearality of timespace and, by extension, considers how we may palpably call forth, channel, and then act in accordance with the wisdom and guidance of Black feminist luminaries through a practice of repetitive chanting. Gumbs describes the practice as a way of “evok[ing] a lineage of Black revolutionaries whose faith in freedom continues to inspire.” Further, “Black feminist breathing is a form of radical presence in the face of multiple forms of violence” and a mode of “invit[ing] our revolutionary ancestors into our bodies and our movement.” Gumbs’s mode of liberatory breath also calls to mind what poet Elizabeth Alexander has theorized as “the Black interior.” She writes: “Tapping into this Black imaginary helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex black selves, real and enactable black power, rampant and unfetishized black beauty.” Black feminist breathing provides an actionable mode of practicing the “tapping in” Alexander references, which is reflected in Dyson’s painting.

Ultimately, Black compositional thought and Black feminist breathing are both methods of recognizing the permeability of spatial and temporal boundaries and drawing on the support of unseen forces or guides, in turn making their union through this mediation even more powerful.

In practice, the bridging of Dyson’s painting and Gumbs’s practice of Black feminist breathing involved, first, a moment of close looking and collective discussion about the formal dimensions of Dyson’s painting and how they made us feel. Several participants commented on how the painting seemed to reward our sustained looking, how it brought about a palpable sense that our ancestors were indeed in the gallery forming an outer circle of protection around us.

Then, we ceremoniously repeated the painting’s title together and attended to how this repetition moved our spirits into deeper intimacy with the somatic intricacies of what is required to “get free.” We noticed how incanting the title together like a prayer or mantra worked like a sonic key to open the work up to our bodies and our bodies up to the work. Engaging the practice of Black feminist breathing together allowed us to, as Dyson’s title references, channel the “presence” and “courage” needed to “get down there” on a visceral level. Put differently, we acknowledged that in incanting the painting’s title together, we could harness the zeal and courage inherent to the energetic residue left behind by the liberatory strategies offered by Jacobs, Brown, and Barnes.

The resulting alchemy was two-fold: by engaging the somatic and spiritual dimensions of our beings and encouraging a more casual mode of engagement, the meditation assisted participants in feeling more ease and ownership in/over formal art spaces. As an experiment in laying claim to our right to occupy museums, to consider what practices we can employ to enter without feeling the need to amputate essential elements of our beings, it also illuminated the possibility of using visual artworks as tools to recover ancestral ways of being. Ultimately, the gathering kicked up a collective connection to our own inherent worth, which then brought us face-to-face with our inalienable power to reshape the conditions of our lives. We felt our wingspans lift on new air. 


Special thank you to Sam Ramos, Associate Director of Innovation and Creativity, Learning and Public Engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago, who advocated for and made possible our presence in the museum after hours, and to meditation-participant Andrea Yarborough for connecting myself and Sam.

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