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The Power of Collective Voice: Culture, Identity, and Empowerment

By Raphaël Bourgois

Tiana Webb Evans and Lydia Amarouche will both be present at the Jersey City Night of Ideas, but not in the same conversation, even though they have much in common. Villa Albertine Magazine, therefore, organized a meeting ahead of the event. Their fascinating conversation tackled urban issues and inclusivity, emphasizing literature, community involvement, and the arts as pivotal in confronting representation and urban challenges, highlighting their respective projects—Yard Concept and Shed Publishing.

Tiana, I was wondering if you could talk about the Yard concept, which presents itself as “an elevation platform focused on cultural investigation & collective consciousness.” It has been influential in addressing this question of urban challenges at the center of this Night of Ideas edition. Could you explain how it operates?

Tiana Webb Evans: It all started in 2018. For those of us who don’t practice as visual Artists, there can be a bifurcation of self. Especially in the United States, where you are an industrial citizen or, as James Baldwin coined it, an “assembly line citizen”. What you do for a living becomes who you are. It came to a point where my research and personal interests were not being expressed in my day-to-day life. Yard Concept is my response to this issue and encompasses the complexities and interests of my 20 years in art and design.

I have a strong interest in philosophy, and as someone from the Caribbean, I value the concept of being both rooted and rhizomatic. Through Yard Concept, I strive to bring together diverse voices through a digital journal, conversations, poetry, essays, and interviews. My aim is to create a vibrant community that welcomes people from all over the world, of all ages, and who share a deep curiosity.

As someone who loves reading books, I’ve been thinking about how those of us who work in the arts and humanities often assume that we all share the same cultural references. But my experience with social media has shown me that this was not always the case and I’ve come to realize how some books require a lot of background knowledge to fully appreciate them.

The question becomes how do we share this? How do we share this information, this point of view, this way of being with others without the pressure of a book club, without demanding that one read for five years before one can join a conversation? And that’s what gave birth to the Yard Concept Reading Circles.

They first started at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, a former beloved gallery in Harlem. These circles focused on communal discussion rather than individual reading, allowing for inclusive and diverse dialogues. This approach also challenges the prevalent binaries of race, gender, and age that plague our society and cause separation. It becomes a radical act to have strangers “in conversation.” A lot of times, people who attend reading circles end up reading the books after the event.

Lydia, you created your own publishing company, Shed Publishing. Could you walk us through how to put together a material, a cultural common ground, with books and knowledge and bringing that, rooting in a community and bringing it in a more universal perspective?

Lydia Amarouche: Shed Publishing was conceived about four years ago, addressing a notable gap in France: the scarcity of physical spaces for the anti-racist community. Cultural hubs like Khiasma created by Olivier Marboeuf in the Parisian suburban of Les Lilas, and La Colonie in Paris, established by French Algerian artist Kader Attia, played a key role in promoting diverse intellectual and artistic exchanges. However, due to the pandemic and lack of public funding, both centers had to be shut down.

There are still some great ongoing initiatives, such as Filles de Bledards and Mwasi, which are part of the Afro-feminist collective, but I wanted to create a space of freedom outside of the institutions and the academic world. I also feel like when you have a structure on your own, you can enter a more effective dialog with institutions.

At the time, like Tiana, I was doing group reading workshops. I used a method called ‘arpentage’, which comes from the union culture of the 19th century in France. Arpentage loosely translates to ‘exploring’. This method was used by workers who wanted to educate themselves and read political theory, but didn’t have the time or money to buy their own books. The principle of arpentage is to take a book, tear it apart, and share it with the group. Each person gets the same amount of pages and reads their assigned parts on their own. Afterwards, the group comes together and shares what they learned. This method has been adopted by activist communities.

One of the first books I read collectively in those groups was by an architect called Samia Henni, which highlighted how architecture was used in colonized Algeria to suppress independence and revolution. The book discussed how architectural experiments in the colonies shaped French landscapes and cities, such as the Grands Ensembles (housing projects) in the suburbs of big cities. This made me realize how difficult it was to discuss the impact of colonization on French architecture, or indeed on any field in a systemic way. Therefore, I decided to create a publishing house where we could work collectively and experiment. I also wanted to create a collection for children, to preserve and care for underrepresented communities, and to produce simple bedtime stories that would represent them as there are so many here in the U.S.

Books can be intimidating, especially in these underrepresented communities you’re working with. Why did you both choose books and how do you work with this idea of cultural intimidation?

TWE: It’s funny; everything returns to modern history and the colonialist framework. The majority of enslaved people in the US were not allowed to read and reading was a privilege. Somewhere along the way a counter-narrative was born that propagated an insidious rejection of intellectualism which more recently gained even more traction with a large swath of American society.

I grew up experiencing this chasm as a Jamaican growing up in New York. Generally, if you’re Caribbean, this is a generalization, you are expected to be well educated. In Jamaican culture especially, there’s a tradition of philosophical engagement whether through the Bible or other formal means. So much so, in Kingston there are a group of guys who have a book van that sell books outside of parties. So, this rejection of reading is foreign to me. I know that the intimidation comes from cultural cues. Books are extremely powerful objects. You can start a book as one person and come out on the other side as someone else. I think in a U.S. context, it’s radical to think, and it’s radical to challenge because we are so caught up with consumerism and the pursuit of wealth.

LA: When I think about books, they are indeed intimidating. I wanted to shake things up at various levels. With the books we publish, I wanted to share different voices and go outside the typical intellectual figure, which is strong in France. We have a perfectly articulate academic discourse—and to me it was important to work with people who mastered this academic course— but I was also interested in working with community organizers, non-profits, and unions to start from the groundwork. And I agree that books are powerful tools because they are also archives; they can circulate and fuel other initiatives.

Our books are a collective and transformative process, whose place is also outside bookshops. That’s why we go to school, to protests. I feel like there’s a lot of intersection in our practice in the publishing house; we are in the activist scene, the queer community, the anti-racist community, the artistic communities. And it brings a lot of people together that don’t necessarily talk.

TWE: I just wanted to respond because I think the cultural differences are interesting. There were maybe 2 or 3 years when the idea of the intellectual, the academic, or the educated was wholeheartedly rejected. I think this was the beginning of the Trump campaign, and it was extreme, people were proud to be anti-education. My initiative is quite different because it tries to help people understand why criticality-questioning everything is important. It is about granting the right to dissect and challenge the world, to think, and even to imagine the world anew.

Many of us are just going through the motions: working, coming home, watching TV, and repeating it all again the next day. We may accumulate material possessions along the way, but this does not necessarily equate to actively participating in culture or shaping the future. It’s not a judgment, but it is an observation that prompts me to intervene and point out that we always have a choice to either accept the world around us as it is or to try to change it. The reality is that the architecture, food, and books we encounter are all products of someone’s imagination, but we too have the power to leave our mark on this environment. Unfortunately, many of us are simply going through the motions, trying to survive, and not actively engaging with the world around us.

Lydia, you’re coming soon for your residency with Villa Albertine. What are you looking for here regarding the question of agency and empowerment that Tiana has just described?

LA: I’m particularly interested in the concept of community organizing, which is perceived very differently in France compared to the United States. In France, there’s a significant racial and social stigma associated with the idea of community. The French concept of “communitarianism” (I’m not sure if there’s an English equivalent) implies a kind of self-imposed isolation. The prevailing belief is that strong community ties hinder integration into the broader society. This is underscored by the French state’s emphasis on colorblindness and the notion of equality as sameness. In this view, to be truly French, one must relinquish their cultural and religious identities. Of course, we know that these ideas of colorblindness and integration resemble more of a myth and even a lie. In contrast, in the U.S., being part of a community is generally seen as positive and enriching.

My residency focuses more precisely on community organizing around books. I know there is a vibrant book club culture in America and a real ability to make it fun. I’m going to visit book clubs and independent libraries. In LA, I really want to pay a visit to the Radical Hood Library created by the female rapper Noname. I hope this stay will give me a lot of ideas for my practice.

TWE: You should also consider going to the suburbs, this is where I get the data points of understanding that there are people who have degrees, well-paying jobs, but are just going through the motions of surviving.

Your mention of the banlieues is worth pausing over, given the distinct interpretations it has in the American and French contexts. In France, suburbs are often viewed as areas of social relegation. Lydia, could you elaborate on this, particularly in connection with your earlier remarks about post-colonial architecture?

LA: When I envision American suburbs, they often resemble the setting of “Desperate Housewives.” In contrast, French suburbs are bearing a significant social and racial stigma. These areas are predominantly inhabited by descendants from former French colonies and suffer from a notable lack of infrastructure. Living in Marseille, the second largest city in France, I witness numerous issues firsthand. These include disconnected neighborhoods, social and racial segregation, and transportation policies like buses servicing only certain areas, effectively barring residents from the Quartiers Nord from accessing beaches. Although numerous non-profits are actively engaged in social work, it seems that the state prefers to offload responsibilities onto these underfunded organizations, rather than addressing the problems directly.

TWE: This is fascinating, and so different. What resonates with me is how architecture and urban planning have historically contributed to segregation and marginalization. In our area, for instance, the bus system’s design intentionally prevents certain communities from connecting, reflecting a strategy to maintain segregation. I’m especially interested in the historical context of these decisions. In the US, for example, specific laws enacted during the Jim Crow era were based on the notion that physical proximity leads to social and cultural integration. To counter this, deliberate measures were taken to enforce separation.

As part of the Night of Ideas discussion, focusing on a densely populated area like Jersey City, we’re witnessing significant changes and facing immense pressures. There’s a parallel here with what’s happening broadly: the high cost of living in cities is leading to a form of mass displacement. Even people who have stable jobs and who could until recently, afford a roof over their heads, are now facing homelessness. This situation points to a broader crisis.

What are the key challenges and priorities you are addressing today, with this matter of underrepresentation, coming from post-slavery and post-colonial communities?

TWE: I tend to challenge those narratives. As a Caribbean individual, my upbringing was within a context of empowerment, a legacy influenced by Marcus Garvey’s teachings, embraced by my parents and grandparents. Growing up in Queens, New York during the 70s and 80s, as a Black girl from the Caribbean, I benefited from the vast diversity of the world’s most multicultural cities and never felt less than anyone else. I’m fully aware of the realities of underrepresentation, but my work focuses more on themes of power and freedom. The language we use, the categories we assign ourselves, profoundly shape our world experience.

I advocate for a collective approach, embracing nuances and accepting the unknown, what Eduoard Glissant would describe as “opacity.” Love and curiosity, I believe, are vital in addressing current issues we’re facing collectively—I don’t believe one group can be free or find liberation without another—we are all connected whether we like it or not.. My role is to facilitate connections and conversations among diverse groups who would otherwise not interact.

One key aspect of my work is to challenge the notion that Caribbean people should perceive themselves as marginal. Accepting such narratives—viewing oneself as underrepresented, as a minority—can place individuals at a disadvantage, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. I reject these limiting frameworks. My interest in philosophy comes from a desire to understand how we perceive ourselves and the language we use to express these perceptions.

My aim is to foster dialogue across different communities and experiences, enabling individuals to see each other as humans first and foremost.

Lydia, a reaction to what Tiana just said?

LA: In France, we encounter a prevalent mindset of color blindness, a concept I’ve touched upon earlier. This approach is notably evident in our educational system, where some teachers, influenced by the works of Paolo Freire and bell hooks, strive for inclusivity and diversity in their classrooms. Their aim is to represent individuals from various backgrounds across different fields and roles, thereby fostering a liberated and diverse imagination among students. A case in point is the teaching of ancient Egypt. Typically, textbooks depict white British archaeologists, overshadowing Egyptian ones. These educators actively seek alternative resources to address this imbalance. However, I believe the issue of representation extends beyond mere visibility. It’s imperative to delve deeper into the underlying structures, particularly the racial division of labor, rather than merely interspersing non-white artists sporadically. Thus, it’s not just about representation; it’s a systemic issue requiring profound attention.

TWE: I love the cultural nuance. You mentioned colorblindness, and I understand its implications and impact in France. However, I believe that in the U.S., our sacred cultural fiction is the meritocracy. We are desperately holding on to a cultural belief that everyone has the potential to achieve wealth and success. While we recognize that this isn’t entirely true, it’s deeply ingrained in the American psyche. We suffer from the racial dynamics in our society, but there isn’t a widespread commitment to either colorblindness or integration. In this economic climate, the focus is more on survival in the face of AI, climate change, and a deteriorating government infrastructure than striving for common ground or unity.

Tiana Webb Evans is the Founder ESP Group LLC, a brand strategy and communications consultancy supporting international clients across art, design, and hospitality industries.She is also the founder and creative director of Yard Concept, a cultural platform comprised of a digital journal, gallery, and ‘happenings’ in the form of her signature Reading Circles dedicated to fostering consciousness through the engagement of art, design, and community; and most recently the founder of Jamaica Art Society an initiative designed to support Jamaican art professional and celebrate its visual arts legacy. In addition to her professional endeavors Tiana, writes about culture, advises and supports emerging artists, and shares her expertise by serving on the boards of Project for Empty Space, the Female Design Council, and Atlanta Art Week, and is on advisory committees for the Laundromat Project, Photo Fairs, and Art at a Time Like This

Marseille-based publisher and curator Lydia Amarouche is a sociology, anthropology, and history graduate of the École Normale Supérieure. She explores various archive documents to create publishing surveys that are either exhibited or performed. In 2019, she launched Corpus, a series of collective, open-access readings that dealt with colonial history, queer and feminist issues, the penitentiary system, education, and art. In 2020, she founded Shed publishing, a publishing and art platform that releases essays on social and political theory, and youth literature.Lydia also lectures at Aix-Marseille University.In 2024, she will be a Villa Albertine resident embarking on a research project about practices of resistance in publishing and literature, focusing specifically on initiatives that harness books as a medium and tool of political and popular education.

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