Student, Artist share a thirst for understanding

At CDS, their collaboration yields a project that examines race and access to fresh water.
Writer: 
April 19, 2017

 

On one wall at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies hangs a pair of large maps, a few yards apart, connected by yarn of yellow, blue, red, orange. One map represents the town of Mebane, in Alamance County, North Carolina; the other shows Lowndes County, Alabama. On both maps yellow yarn, running from pushpin to pushpin, represents sewer lines, and blue shows water lines. Purple yarn outlines historically black communities, and within those areas on both maps you see the same thing: No yellow lines. And no blue lines. No sewer infrastructure and no water infrastructure where black people live. The connecting yarn makes the point—states apart, the conditions are similar, as are the systems that create those conditions.

Those conditions represent the heart of the exhibition “In Conditions of Fresh Water,” a multimedia project created by Nicholas School graduate student Danielle Purifoy and Brooklyn artist Torkwase Dyson. Purifoy’s Ph.D. focuses on race and environmental justice, and Dyson’s printmaking and other artwork views the conditions of black people through the evidence of the built and natural environments. The exhibition runs at CDS through June 3.

On the maps, other colors of yarn represent main thoroughfares and boundaries of extraterritorial jurisdictions (ETJs)—areas where municipalities control land-use policy, though the residents can’t vote for the decision makers. “Living in the ETJ means that Mebane has power over these communities,” Purifoy says in the exhibit, “but the communities have no meaningful political voice. ETJ residents cannot vote in municipal elections.”

Elsewhere in the room hang framed portraits of residents of the two regions; a CD player allows visitors to hear residents tell their stories. A little school desk holds a shelf of books addressing planned public spaces in black neighborhoods. In a pair of rooms across the hall hang works by Dyson—dark squares connected by wire, large images of dark shapes arranged almost architecturally, as though the shapes express city plans.

Purifoy met Dyson in Facebook Messenger, when Purifoy reached out to see whether Dyson would be interested in a visiting-artist program at the Nicholas School. Dyson was interested; she surprised Purifoy by asking how the two could collaborate. “I didn’t know what we could possibly choose, or how I could be a partner in the work,” Purifoy says. “I told her I’d been doing research on these historic black communities, most dating back to post-bellum years.” She’d been tracing their environmental history, “particularly with regard to access to basic infrastructure.” It turned out that both women had family and history in North Carolina and Alabama, so the project began to take shape. “We're seeing these really stark similarities in access to infrastructure,” Purifoy says, “so it might be a cool thing to do something with narrative about that.”

The two used Dyson’s Studio South Zero, a tiny solar-powered trailer-based art studio that enables her to go wherever she cares to—infrastructure or no—and set up shop, communicate with the locals, and make art. She and Purifoy had connections with social-justice organizations and neighborhood groups, and the pair used the studio to interview people, capturing the interviews on tape along with images of the subjects. Dyson made art, Purifoy made maps, and the result—along with Dyson’s mobile studio, parked out front—now resides at the Center for Documentary Studies. Visitors can see the art, read the books, inspect the maps, listen to the “mixtape” of interviews, and pin their responses to a bulletin board. Speakers and events on campus have supported the exhibit.

“The topic alone is pretty obscure and can feel kind of unsexy,” Purifoy says. “But when people understand there are actual concrete effects based on where you live and the history of the place, if you can get people to understand that, and the history of structural racism, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s happening.’ ”

 

 

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.