When Kahlon ceased to exist in its capacity as a bimonthly party at The Crown, it felt like a blow to the city's music scene, which was finally starting to feel a bit less siloed. That was due to the series' eclectic lineups, bringing artists of disparate sounds and scenes together under the umbrella of the avant garde, or just getting people to pop off. Everyone who'd been to Kahlon—whether to see Princess Nokia, Dan Deacon, Juliana Huxtable, Natural Velvet, the late Lor Scoota, or Kahlon creator Abdu Ali, among many others—looked forward to the party's transformation into an annual festival, but the idea of going a year without what now felt so necessary was hard to imagine.
Ali felt that. So he brought Kahlon back. But this time, he's changing things up even more.
Instead of one annual festival, the Kahlon team broke it down into three events that would highlight the work of artists across disciplines from underrepresented communities—black, brown, queer, and so on. Kahlon's reincarnation as The Cut Up Series, made possible by The Contemporary's Grit Fund, began last November with a party featuring voguing legend Leiomy Maldonado, author D. Watkins, and DJ Angel Baby, among others. But that was just Part One.
Part Two, taking place Feb. 4 at E.M.P. Collective, has a more visual bent with video, dance, performance, installation, and text-based work (Part Three, Ali says, will take place later in the spring with a focus on literature).
"At Kahlon we really want to change the artistic climate in the city and you have to do diligent programming work in order for that to change," Ali says. "I think that Kahlon just as a music event definitely helped change the music environment in Station North, and I think if Kahlon can do that we can do the same thing in other environments."
For this, Ali enlisted the help of curator and conceptual photographer Elliott Jerome Brown, Jr., who headlined an exhibition at Platform Gallery in November and created the striking cover for Ali's mixtape "Mongo," released last spring. The new Cut Up show, titled "Proximity to Dead Skin," showcases the work of eight artists—Dana Davenport, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Rakiya Orange, Najee Haynes-Follins, Kelly Lloyd, Keiff Jones, Rafia Santana, and Kaila Philo (a former City Paper intern)—who respond to the alienation of living in a toxic world that insists on marginalization.
"We wanted to show work that represents the idea of living on the brink of trying to survive as an other, trying to survive as a black person, as a queer person, as a person who is not accepted by society," Ali says. He brought Brown on board as an experienced curator whose own work grapples with intersections in identity.
In helping Ali curate the show, Brown says he wanted to strike a balance in tone between lightness and gravity.
"It's dealing with racial, political and social tensions," says Brown. "A show like that can be very heavy so often when I'm asked to curate work in shows like that I try to incorporate artists who are approaching that lens with imagination and humor and a kind of playfulness. That lightness is kind of required in this discourse, which is not to say that our actions shouldn't be heavy or that we shouldn't be passionate about what we're doing and take it seriously—it's just that we also need to survive."
That balance is what attracted Brown to, for example, the work of multimedia artist Rafia Santana, who for "Proximity" will show archived drawings from her childhood, like one with the words "I wish that I wood not mes up. And that I'm not Bad." scrawled in fat black marker followed by a little heart half colored in black, the other half left white—a simultaneously charming and crushing artifact of withering innocence in a culture addicted to shame.
Santana is based in New York, as are a few others shown in "Proximity," like Dana Davenport, whose video performance 'Heugin - Black Person' (pictured above) deals with the implications of the artist's dual Korean and African-American identities. The majority of the artists to be showcased responded to an open call put out by Kahlon exclusively to Baltimore artists; the others were invited from out of town.
"We wanted to mix it up because we think that it's important for non-local people to see that there's shit going on here," Ali says, "and vice versa."
Among the Baltimore artists in "Proximity" are Kelly Lloyd, whose objects include kitschy gift baskets stuffed with commonplace but loaded items with their own stories, like borrowed books and items from the artist's nightstand; and dancer/choreographer Rakiya Orange, who will perform her piece 'Aziza,' an exploration of being a black woman in America.
Ali was surprised to discover that he'd never heard of many of the applicants that he and Brown ended up selecting—and disappointed to find further evidence that artists of color in Baltimore continue to go underrecognized and without support in an art scene dominated by white artists, curators, and gallerists. He sees a problem, too, with the failure of white-controlled spaces and resources to promote to black communities as audience members and participants in creative work. It's not enough to show artists of color in exhibitions, he says; cultivators need to involve people of color on every level—not just a seat at the table, but "a piece of the fucking pie."
"There's a lot of black visual artists but they're all sort of just operating in their own pockets, isolated," he says. "I go to a lot of those galleries, and no shade—I'm the only black person there."